Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011) was one of the most renowned British artists of the 20th century. Though he is best known as a painter he was also a keen printmaker, producing versions of many of the subjects featured in his paintings – portrait heads, nudes, dogs and landscapes. These prints were never copies of the paintings; they were conceived independently and required separate sittings, though they were often produced in parallel over the same period of time.
I love the element of danger and mystery.
All of Freud's prints are etchings. He favoured etching because it is very similar to drawing, and because he loved 'the element of danger and mystery' inherent in the process. To make an etching, the artist uses a sharp pointed tool (an etching needle) to draw into a layer of acid-resistant waxy resin (called the 'ground') which has been applied to the surface of a metal plate, usually copper. The plate is then immersed in acid. The acid bites into the metal where it has been exposed by the action of the etching needle. The longer it is immersed the deeper the grooves will be.
The plate is then taken out and washed, the ground is removed, and the printer applies ink. The ink is held in the etched lines, and any excess is wiped from the unetched areas. A sheet of damp paper is laid on the inked plate and passed through a press to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper. The image the artist drew on the plate appears in reverse on the paper.
Freud made a handful of etchings in the 1940s, but none of these were published in limited editions, and only a handful of impressions have survived. In 1982, he took up etching again and produced several prints, prompted by the publication of a monograph on his work by art historian Lawrence Gowing. Some were included with a deluxe edition of the book while others, including a portrait of Gowing, were published separately. This print was etched and printed by Terry Willson at Palm Tree Editions, and it shows Freud exploring the possibilities of the medium and experimenting with various effects, such as the white dots in the areas of cross-hatched shading, which were produced by dropping acid-resistant varnish on the plate before it went into the acid bath.
Freud made several more prints with Willson until in 1985 the artist Celia Paul, Freud's lover at the time, introduced him to master printer Marc Balakjian (1938 – 2017) at Studio Prints in north London where she was making etchings herself. He quickly developed a rapport with Balakjian and they worked together until 2007, when Freud made his last prints.
It was stimulating to give Marc the plate and see what he would make of it.
Balakjian's rare ability to get into the mind of the artist quickly fostered what he described as a 'collaborative closeness' between himself and Freud, and from 1986 onwards all of Freud's prints were proofed and printed by Balakjian, and until 2001, he also etched the plates. In the course of their long association, Balakjian amassed a unique collection of trial proofs, some with chalk marks and amendments by Freud; he later annotated the prints with notes about inks and paper, the sequence of proofs and states, and the relationships of the proofs to the published editions. These various impressions, now in the V&A, are fascinating documents which record the partnership between artist and printer and demonstrate the ways in which Balakjian's skills supported Freud's ambitions and achievements in print.
Freud was very much involved in the process. He liked to be there in the studio when the plate was etched in the acid, and he would take away the first proofs printed from the plate and study them. Balakjian would produce a number of trial proofs for each composition, fine-tuning the printing technique and varying the choice of inks and papers, so Freud could choose the combination of effects that best matched his vision. Sometimes Freud would add pastel marks to a proof to indicate changes he wished to make and Balakjian would polish away some of the etched lines on the plate, so Freud could redraw that area of the composition. Each time an artist makes a change to a plate after the first trial proof has been printed, the revised plate and impressions printed from it comprise a new 'state'. Some of Freud's prints went through two or three states before he was satisfied and ready to publish the edition.
Large Head (1993)
Leigh Bowery (1961 – 94), a flamboyant and often outrageous performer in London's underground arts scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Freud's favourite models. Beginning in 1990, Bowery sat for several paintings and etchings, most of which celebrate what Freud described as 'his wonderfully buoyant bulk'. Here Freud focussed on Bowery's smooth flesh and his expressive face, stripped of the exaggerated make-up he wore for his performances.
After viewing the first proofs, Freud added white pastel to the sitter's right shoulder (see second image in below sequence) to show Balakjian where he wanted lines to be erased from the plate. The third image shows the proof once these lines had been removed, giving more emphasis to the smooth bulk of his flesh. It is similar to the published edition.
Self-Portrait: Reflection (1996)
Freud wanted this print to be dark, but there were no etched marks in the shoulder areas to hold the ink. He asked Balakjian to print a proof before he had finished wiping ink from the shoulders and parts of the face. This ink residue on the plate produced a mottled effect when printed, which Balakjian then had to replicate as closely as possible for each impression in the edition. The cancellation proof shows how the plate printed when it was wiped clean of all residual ink.
After Constable's Elm (2003)
Freud's etching was inspired by John Constable's Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (about 1821), which he first saw in the V&A when he was a 17-year-old student. He was unhappy with his attempts to paint a copy of it at the time, but he was drawn to the subject again in 2003 when he co-curated a Constable exhibition held in Paris. The etching is almost the same size as the painting, but not an exact copy.
The trial proofs below show that Balakjian experimented with a range of different coloured inks and varied the intensity of the inking.
After viewing the trial proofs, Freud preferred those with green-black ink. He asked Balakjian to keep the trunk dark and lighten the branches. For this print from the published edition, the printer used black ink for the trunk, a dark tone at the sides, and green-black ink elsewhere.
Bella in Her Pluto T-Shirt (1995)
Freud spent many hours on each of his etchings and sometimes revised them several times before he was satisfied. This portrait of his daughter Bella, a fashion designer, went through two states before he was happy to publish the third. He had some difficulties with his drawing of Bella's head and hand, and he twice asked Balakjian to erase those areas from the plate so that he could revise them. In the final state he also deepened the shadow under her left arm. The proof of the third (final) state is similar to the published edition.
Some of Freud's prints were not editioned because he abandoned them as soon as he saw the first proofs. As Balakjian explained, "If he is not happy he rejects it, no matter how long it has taken." In such cases only a handful of proofs survive. One of these is Head of a Woman (1986 – 87), a portrait of Celia Paul, which Freud decided not to publish because he was unhappy with his drawing. Another is Red Armchair by the Fireplace (1987), a view in his studio, which he dismissed as too 'illustrative', despite the fact that he had spent more than 100 hours working on it.
When the printing of a limited edition has been completed, it is usual practice to deface the plates to ensure that no more impressions can be printed from them to dishonestly extend the edition. The cancellation may be done by polishing the plate, by pouring acid on it, or by punching a hole through it. The most common method of cancellation is to scratch lines across the plate.
Freud often cancelled his plates by scoring a cross through the face or figure – as seen in Self-Portrait: Reflection (1996) – though in the case of Landscape (1993) and Woman with an Arm Tattoo (1996) the marks are incised vigorously across the whole of the image.
Once the plate has been cancelled a proof may be printed from it as evidence of the cancellation. This proof may be signed by the artist. Freud usually initialled his cancellation proofs at the lower right corner below the image, in pencil, but occasionally he scratched his initials on the plate itself, as in Blond Girl (1986).
Another exception is the plate for After Constable's Elm (2003), which is not scored through. Marc Balakjian persuaded Freud to donate the plate to the V&A, and to cancel it discreetly by adding his initial at the top left corner.
All images (except Lawrence Gowing, Blond Girl, After Constable's Elm, and etching plate for After Constable's Elm) accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government in 2019 from the collection of Marc Balakjian and allocated to the V&A.