In conversation with Sue Tilley
LONDON, United Kingdom — On a warm Thursday evening in June, I packed my art bag, kissed the family goodbye, and headed to the Hampstead School of Art. I was so excited I almost ran to my destination. I was about to paint alongside the British artist Tim Benson. Tim is a superb painter and his method of building the form transformed how I work from life. Getting to paint with him and watch him work, even briefly, is a privilege. And then there was our model for the evening Sue Tilley. Sue is an author, artist, presenter and artist's model. She is famous for having sat for Lucian Freud over a period of nine months for four paintings and two etchings. How often do you get an opportunity to paint the same person as one of the greatest artists of our time did?
As someone that is both an artist and writer, the idea had occurred to me that getting to paint Sue was also a unique opportunity to write about the experience of painting her. In an ideal world, this would also include an interview. I was as interested as everyone else about Sue's experience of Lucian Freud who was an enigmatic man with an incredibly colourful personal life, but one that was also notoriously private with a reputation for being difficult. The fact that Freud painted her four times over an extended period of time, is testament to an artist/model relationship that worked, and is quite likely indicative of a certain resilience on the part of Sue too. His painting of her entitled ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ sold for a record amount of $33,641,000 in 2008 at Christie's New York allegedly between Guy Naggar and Roman Abromovich. Another of Freud's paintings of Sue entitled 'Benefits Supervisor Resting' sold for $56,165,000 in 2015.
'Benefits Supervisor Sleeping' (1995). Oil on canvas, (1499 x 2502mm.) Private collection. Photo: Lucian Freud Archive.
I also wondered how that relationship and the unprecedented media attention the sale of those paintings generated had effected or even changed her life, and what she was doing now.
But this grand idea of mine was not without obstacles. For starters, I didn't want to disrespect the space that Tim Benson was tutoring in and that other artists were working in. Also, first and foremost I was there to paint, and Sue was there to model, not be grilled about Freud. Sue might also of course simply not wish to discuss the late artist, in which case all of this was redundant.
I entered the studio on that Thursday evening, and Sue was sitting in the centre of the room looking resplendent in orange and navy. I felt genuinely nervous in that way you do when you want to say hello to someone important. I managed to walk up and shake her hand and muttered a squeaky introduction. She seemed a little surprised by the formality of my greeting, while I was suitably starstruck. But there was no time for chatting as Tim Benson started to brief the assembled artists about what we were there to do, and how he worked, and it was time to set up and go about the business of painting a portrait.
Sue assumed a comfortable position for what would be a three hour pose and announced to the room: "Feel free to ask me questions, it breaks up the evening." Someone commented that Sue was so much more attractive than Freud had painted her. Another person asked Sue a question about what it was like sitting for the artist, and she answered matter of factly. Naturally this led to further, braver questions, which Sue was happy to respond to. I breathed a sigh of relief: Evidently Lucian Freud was open for discussion. That's one obstacle out of the way. But right now I had to concentrate on my painting.
Despite chatting briefly with Sue during the break, the opportunity to ask her for an interview didn't arise, as we were all discussing the news events of the day and the upcoming referendum here in the UK. At 9.30pm it was the end of our session - which appeared to have passed at lightening speed. I put down my brush and stepped back from my painting. There were things that needed refining and resolving, but that's the nature of a three hour session. Like everyone else in the room I had to make peace with the fact that the painting was done whether I liked it or not, and perhaps so was my chance for an interview. I left thinking that I might just have missed my opportunity.
The following day, having posted pictures of the workshop on social media, Sue and I crossed paths on Twitter when she retweeted my painting of her. I tentatively sent her a tweet asking for an interview, not expecting much, and couldn't believe my luck when she agreed. I had got my opportunity to paint her portrait, and talk to her. This was a good day. During our correspondence Sue was a generous and accessible person who responded to my questions and queries promptly. Her answers, while refreshingly open, managed not to cross the line into indiscretion, which I greatly admired. It also gave me some indication that Sue remains both fond of and respectful of Lucian Freud. What follows is a fascinating insight into what it was like to model for the controversial artist and what happens when you come from a place of yes.
Q: Hi Sue, where are you from originally?
I lived in Paddington until I was six, Surrey until I was 11, and near St.Albans until I was 18 when I went to college. Later my parents moved to Windsor and I moved to London as soon as I could.
Q: Where do you live now?
I currently live in Bethnal Green but am thinking of moving to St Leonards on Sea.
Q: How did you meet Lucian Freud?
I was introduced to him by my friend Leigh Bowery who was already sitting for him. (Authors note: Leigh Bowery (26 March 1961 – 31 December 1994) was an Australian-born performance artist based in London. He also promoted clubs and worked as a designer. He was one of Lucian Freud’s most prolific models)
Q: How did Leigh and Lucian meet?
One of our friends, Angus Cook, had been to university with one of Lucian’s daughter and he was sitting for him. He told Lucian all about Leigh and Lucian was fascinated so arranged a meeting.
Leigh Bowery posing for 'Naked Man, Back View' (1992) and Lucian Freud. Photo by Bruce Bernard. © The Estate of Bruce Bernard
Q: Can you describe the initial meeting?
He invited Leigh and me to The River Café for lunch. He entertained me by telling a joke about a whale masturbating. Throughout lunch I could feel his eyes boring in to me to check that I was OK to sit for him.
Q: How old were you when you first posed for him?
Q: To what extent did Leigh Bowery influence the meeting and the paintings that followed and why do you think he did that?
Leigh decided that Lucian should paint me as it would be good for me. So he started talking about me and put the idea into Lucian’s head that he should ask me to sit.
Q: Did L.F outline how he envisioned painting you, or did that evolve through discussions between the two of you?
Not at all. The first painting I sat for originally had Leigh and Nicola (Bateman - Leigh’s wife) in it. I arrived at the studio and was just asked to lay on the floor. For the later paintings he bought a sofa that he thought would suit me and then I laid on it and wiggled about until he was happy with the pose and I was reasonably comfortable.
Q: Had you done any life modelling before this? And if not, what was the initial experience like?
No, I had no previous experience. Before I went to Lucians for the first time, Leigh came to my flat and made me strip off. To stop feeling embarrassed I told myself that Lucian was like a doctor and had seen all this naked flesh before.
Q: Did he ever flirt with you? Sorry I have to ask because of his reputation with women.
Luckily not, neither of us were each other’s cup of tea and I think that made sitting easier as there was no sexual tension.
Q: According to my research, Freud did four artworks of you. Are these all paintings or are some of them paintings and drawings?
There are four paintings and two etchings. There is also a quite small unfinished painting which was recently shown at the Rubens exhibition at The Royal Academy.
An unfinished painting of Sue Tilley. Lucian Freud
Q: Did Lucian sketch you first, or did he go straight into the painting?
He went straight into painting.
Q: Did he ever take any photographs of you for the work?
No, he couldn’t bear working from photographs as he needed your energy to paint a true portrait.
Q: You mentioned that he wanted to meet your parents? Why do you think that was? And what was that meeting like?
He just wanted to see what they looked like. They came over in the morning and Lucian made them coffee in dirty enamel mugs. He knew my dad liked sport so talked as much as he could on that subject to make my dad feel comfortable.
Q: For how long in total did you sit for him?
All four paintings took about nine months - about three days per week. The first painting was at night and I worked from about 7pm to 1am but the starting time depended on the time of year as it had to be dark so that the light was the same. The next three paintings were day time so I worked from about 7.30am to 3pm. The first sitting was usually about 1½ hours but the breaks got more frequent as the day went on. I loved it when I heard the phone as I knew that would give me a short break. If we had lunch in the studio we would break for about an hour, but if we went out it could be up to two hours. In two years I only had about four days when I wasn’t working as Lucian begged me to use all my holidays and weekends working for him. I couldn’t really go away anyway as I wasn’t allowed to get a tan.
Sue's hand on top of a photograph from the Christies catalogue image of the painting 'Benefit Supervisor Resting'.
Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: Did you have lunch together on days he painted you, and where did you go?
Lucian would either cook lunch or we would got to a restaurant, like the River Café or some other fancy local place. He lived by The Hay diet and very rarely ate carbohydrates. He would have fresh fish delivered daily so we would have sea bass, lobster or smoked salmon followed by a rocket and tomato salad. He would sometimes get a cake from Clarkes for pudding or else Hagen Daazs ice cream. But there was something wrong with his freezer so it was always rock hard. I would often be asked to shell peas of broad beans. He believed in having the best quality ingredients cooked simply.
Q: Was he respectful of you and your personal boundaries while painting you? I ask this because some artists treat models like mannequins coming up and moving parts of the body without being conscious of the fact that some people don’t like being touched.
Sometimes he would come up and move my bosom that had moved but I didn’t mind.
Q: What sorts of things did you talk about while he was painting?
Everything under the sun. He read a lot of newspapers so was well up on current affairs. He also loved to gossip and we told each other what we had been up to since we had last seen each other. I also liked it when he told me about his past which was fascinating.
Q: While you were sitting for him, did you have any concept or appreciation of the fact that he was what some people describe as one of the greatest artists of our time?
Not really, he wasn’t as famous then. It was just like going to work. I wish I had paid more attention.
Q: Were you surprised at how much the two paintings ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ and ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ fetched?
I was, especially the first one as it came out of the blue. I had seen that a painting of Lucian’s daughter had sold for a few million a year earlier, and at that time I did think that mine would probably sell for more but I never guessed that it would be a world record breaker.
Sue pictured in front of 'Benefits Supervisor Resting' (1994)
Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: When you look at those paintings, do you see yourself?
Sort of but I kind of distance myself from them. Sometimes I get out of bed and look at my leg and think “Oh it looks just like my leg in that painting.”
Q: What was your reaction to the titles of the paintings? Freud seemed to genuinely depersonalise his paintings with titles like,‘Girl in a bed’. I’m interested if that ever came up in conversation - how he named his work?
I didn’t care what he called them. I told my manager at work that Lucian was using the name ‘Benefit Supervisor’ and he said he shouldn’t but Lucian just did what he wanted. I was working for DWP in a job centre.
Q: As a woman what do you think of L.F’s depiction of your body in the paintings?
I know I’m a fat woman but I don’t think I look any worse than the skinny women as they have a lot of jutting bones and I have soft fleshy curves which kind of fit into the sofa. In fact I think I look rather magnificent.
Q: Do you think the paintings of you feel that he is looking at you more as an equal than some of the paintings of women he was in a sexual relationship with - where he appears to look down on them? It might just be my interpretation, but I think the ones of you do feel different.
I really don’t know if this is true or not….the only person who knows is him. It may have been the angle he was painting me from. The first painting of me ‘Evening in the Studio’ was put into the Whitechapel gallery for the last few days of his exhibition there in 1992. I went to see it and there was some man there talking to a group of visitors. Saying that the painting proved that Lucian hated women as I was on the floor and the dog was on the bed. He said Lucian made the woman really ugly and grotesque. I started laughing and he asked why. When I said who I was he wanted the ground to eat him up. I explained that originally Leigh had been on the bed but he had other commitments and that’s why the dog was on the bed. Lucians work is more about composition and testing himself rather than telling a story.
'Evening in the studio' by Lucian Freud (1993). Oil on canvas (2000 x 1690mm). Lewis Collection. Photo: The Lucian Freud Archive.
Q: To what extent did sitting for Lucian Freud change your life?
The best bit is getting asked to do little jobs such as modelling, writing articles, giving talks and sometimes being on TV. I like doing these things as you get to go behind the scenes which I enjoy as I like seeing how things are put together. I’ve just presented part of a TV show where I was lucky enough to go into the National Gallery and the Met in NYC before they opened. I also met other artists such as Alison Lapper and John Currin.
Sue Tilley meets the Duchess of Cambridge. Also pictured Sandy Nairne of the National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Jorge Herrera/WireImage
Q: You mentioned that during the period you sat for L.F you met many of his family members and children especially. I was curious as to what sort of father he was, or rather, how he was with his children? Did they simply drop round to the studio to watch him work? Or was this over lunches?
Oh no they never just popped round, only Bella was allowed his phone number. But I met them at openings and other events. I think they enjoyed sitting for him as it gave them a chance to get to know him as he was an absent father to most of them.
Q: What was your relationship like with L.F? Did you ever see evidence of that infamous temper or caustic tongue?
We got on very well in a working relationship way. I’m not a very touchy feely kind of person. Sometimes when he was painting and it wasn’t going right he would stab himself in his leg with a paint brush and scream “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He also enjoyed proudly telling me how he had argued with people he seemed to think had slighted him in some way.
Q: I read that Lucian paid for Leigh Bowery's body to be flown back to Australia to his family after he died. Can you talk about this at all? It is a sign of Lucian’s kindness and generosity which I don’t think a lot of people saw or knew about.
Lucian can be really kind and generous. He was happy to pay for Leigh to go back to Australia. His family had a small burial for him in the town where they went on holiday. His coffin wouldn’t fit in the grave and there was a massive thunder storm.
Q: How did you and Leigh meet and become friends?
We met at a Nightclub and as we had similar backgrounds and family we just became friends very quickly.
Sue and Leigh Bowery on the set of ‘Hail the New Puritans’ - A film about Michael Clark directed by Charles Atlas in 1987.
Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: What prompted/inspired you to write the book Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon (1997)?
A publisher asked me to.
Q: How was it received?
It was very popular. I basically wrote a book that I would love to read myself. Several of my friends say it is their favourite book and have read it many times. It is out of print now but is available for Kindle.
Q: Can you tell me how you went about researching it?
It was easy really. I wrote headings of certain subjects and then just started writing. Most of it was from my head but I interviewed lots of people who knew him and if they told me something I didn’t know I slipped it into the right chapter. As I had never written a book before I sort of just wrote it organically. I let the information lead me into the construction of it.
Q: Have you stayed in contact with David (Dawson - L.F’s long term assistant) or anyone else connected to the artist?
A good friend of mine models for David so I keep in touch with him that way. I am friends with several of his daughters on Facebook and Jane has used me in her work.
Q: What are you doing now, apart from painting?
I sometimes do talks, I did the TV show, bits of writing. If anyone asks me to do something I will generally say yes.
Q: Do you still do sittings for artists? Have you done any life painting sessions apart from those with Freud?
Not really although I am going to sit for a sculpture by Nicole Farhi. Modelling isn’t really my favourite thing. I only do it for special occasions.
Q: Please talk to me about how you started painting and when this was?
I love painting when I was a child and studied up to A level and then went on to train as an art teacher. I gave up but about three years ago I did some modelling for a charity event at The Kids Company. I met an artist there who was also modelling, we became friends and he encouraged me to start painting and drawing again.
Q: What kind of artist are you?
I mostly work in acrylic… I am still learning all the time. People ask me to do commissions which I enjoy as it forces me to paint things I wouldn’t usually paint such as animals. I am also always being asked to paint pictures of my friends Leigh and Trojan. I also do a lot of drawings that tell amusing stories
Q: Do you think there is any influence of Freud in your work and if so what might that be?
Not at all although a couple of people have said that my dog paintings are a bit Lucian.
Johnnie Shand Kydd’s dog Finn with a painting of himself. Sue Tilley.
Acrylic on canvas 6 x 6 inches. Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: You mentioned to me you wish you had paid more attention to L.F when he was painting, but at the time you simply thought of it as a job. Did he ever talk about his process of painting while actually painting? And what sorts of things did he say?
He used to say that he couldn’t NOT paint. He can’t paint his subjects without them being there, not even the backgrounds as the colour and energy of the person affect the background.
Q: Why do you paint? What motivates/drives/inspires you?
Because I enjoy it and it’s a very pleasant way to make some money. I love doing pictures for people and seeing how pleased they are. I also enjoy trying new techniques and materials and challenging myself.
Q: What does art mean to you?
It means life.
Q: Do you have a particular colour palette that you use? I’m thinking of someone like Tim Benson and his limited palette by which he creates a myriad of beautiful colours and tones.
Not at all…I tend to veer towards bright colours but just use what I have available.
'Dad’s Tea' by Sue Tilley. Acrylic on canvas, 6 x 6 inches. Painted for the birthday of illustrator Will Broome
Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: What (if anything) do you most struggle with when painting?
Nothing in particular. I used to think I couldn’t draw hands but I have found that I actually can. I think that if you put your mind to it you can paint anything
Q: You mentioned having a show and another coming up. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I had an exhibition at Formans Smokehouse Gallery. This was because there was an article in The Observer about my drawing and someone had written a very sarcastic comment which made me laugh. I put it on Facebook and the curator of the gallery saw it and offered me a show. I wasn’t really ready but I thought ‘why not’ and managed to fill a huge space with my work and sell a fair amount. The best bit was the opening party.
I have an upcoming exhibition in Hull at The Museum of Club Culture which is run by an old friend. It is called “Let’s Groove Tonight” and will be loosely based on going out!
Photo: Courtesy of Sue Tilley
Q: Are you represented by an agent or gallery?
Q: Do you listen to music when you paint, and if so, what is on your playlist?
I always listen to Radio 2. Jeremy Vine at lunchtime to keep up with current affairs and then pop. I love 80s music and it is often on their playlist.
Q: What is your favourite thing to do when you are not working?
Go out to dinner with friends or read a book.
Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. I actually finished it this morning. It’s American literature which I am very fond of. John Irving is my favourite author.
Q: What or who do you most dislike?
I’m not keen on complainers and people who always look for the bad side of everything. I also don’t like bigots and people who complain about immigrants. Funnily enough I also HATE the Daily Mail.
Q: If you could do anything differently in your life it would be …?
Travel more and maybe live in another country for a bit.
Q: If you were not currently an artist, you would be a … ?
Who knows…I generally let things happen to me so it depends on what I was asked to do.
Q: Do you have a motto in life? And if so, what is it?
Don’t Worry too much, don’t bear grudges. If someone asks you to do something generally say ‘Yes’
With gratitude to Sue Tilley.
Sue's book: Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon is available on Kindle.
Contact Sue Tilley via Facebook or Twitter
Authors note: Please be aware that some images featured here may be subject to copyright by their respective owners. They have been used for illustrating this article which is published for non commercial purposes. Should you wish you attach a more accurate photo credit or have me remove the images please see my contact page. Thank you.