The end of Lucian’s gambling days coincided with gaining a new dealer. William Acquavella was ambitious, and transformed Lucian’s reputation and prices.
At the time Lucian was by no means a star. He was actually thought to be something of a has-been. ‘ No one was really interested in figurative art, especially what he did. Pop and kinetic art was what the modern art collectors desired. All that passed Lucian by, making him seem traditional, even old-fashioned, but with still with the ability to shock with his raw nudes. He was doing pictures that were considered less attractive, that were not really appealing to anyone. It sounds strange now, but that was the reality and how he was received and perceived.’
James Kirkman remembers him as a painter whose star was not on the rise. ‘His shows were non-events. The press cuttings about them were on thin ground, but there he was plugging away. Lucian knew his works were not much liked, but he did not care. He was shown at the gallery of Marlborough Fine Art but the others there were fairly dismissive and thought he was there because he was the friend of David Somerset, the Duke of Beaufort. Marlborough dis not do anything for him. He was seen as a bit of a bore, always wanting advances. Handing him was a thankless task.’
However, Acquavella was on a different scale then Lucian’s previous brokers. He travelled by private jet. He had a palace of a gallery in Manhattan. He was rich and a patrician and already dealt in major pictures by Picasso and Matisse. Kirkman had always been unable to find anyone who wanted to give Lucian a commercial show in New York. That changed in 1992 when Acquavella put his money and muscle behind Lucian to propel him into the big time.
Ironically, Acquavella had not initially wanted Lucian as a client. He had met him socially through in London through the Duke of Beaufort, but after Lucian had left Kirkman, Acquavella had heard every good reason not to take him on. But overtures had been made and a lunch was set up at Wilton’s, the grand restaurant on Jermyn Street in St. James’s famous for its lobsters and Dover sole. ‘I had no intention of really taking on Lucian because every English dealer told me he was doing these totally unsaleable pictures: huge, full-front male nudes, impossible to sell and he’s such a difficult person. My wife came along for lunch and I said to her, “How we gonna get out of this gracefully if he wants us to go back to his studio?”’
‘Well, we had a very nice lunch and sure enough he invited us back. The first thing he pulled out was a Leigh Bowery painting and I went, “Man, this is different from what I had in mind, and from what you have done in the past.” The first was then one with his leg raised. Then the one of Leigh’s monumental back, before finally he pulled out the picture of Leigh in the red chair. I saw those three paintings and said, “Let’s make a deal.”’
They shook hands. “’ If it works we will keep doing it and if it doesn’t we’ll stop,” I told him and he just said “Fine.”’. Lucian had a new dealer, his seventh. The new deal remained as it always had been. The moment the final brushstroke was applied to a painting Lucian wanted a cheque. Whatever profit was made by his dealer never bothered Lucian. He wanted cash fast.
There was just one hitch. Lucian owed money to as Northern Irish bookie, and asked Acquavella to sort it out. He had often asked his dealers to sort out similar financial headaches in his life. Lucian said that the bookie’s name was Alfie McLean, and that he had bought many of his paintings. Acquavella duly arranged lunch with McLean, whom he recognized at once as ‘the Big man’ in Lucian’s portrait of that name from the 1970s. ‘When I sat down with Alfie McLean at the the end of the meal I asked what Lucian owed him. I was thinking of some preposterous figure like 100,000. When he spurted out 2.7 million I was blown away.’ Acquavella, however, kept his word and the debt vanished. It was the ultimate act of confidence in his new artist. ‘I made Alfie buy a picture at a better price, and so on. We worked it out,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if you have ever met Alfie – a very big man, I mean really big . . . hands and head, a big character. Well, it was a big debt too.’
The advantage for Acquavella was that because Lucian had had no dealer for almost two years, he had a lot of pictures to sell. ‘Once I took his work to New York and I started living with his work I realized that he was an unbelievably special artist who had found his time. When Francis Bacon died, Lucian exploded on the market,’ he said. Freud’s pictures had grown in size and scale. They were more imposing and monumental. Lucian had joined the top table.
The biggest winner among everyone who ever did business for Lucian, though, was Alfie McLean, the bookie. He had taken the biggest gamble of his life by swapping Freud’s gambling debts for pictures that eventually became worth tens of millions of pounds. He ended up owning twenty-five paintings, possibly the largest collection of Lucian work in private hands.
The Big Man (1976-77) is an archetypal Freud work, mesmerizing, brooding and remarkable for a portrait of what is essentially just a ruddy-faced man in a suit. It could have looked like every corporation’s commissioned portrait of their company chairman, but this picture is scarily hypnotic. . . every fold of his tight-fitting suit adds to the tension of this very bulky man trapped in this space, lost in his thoughts as he is scrutinized. A sense of physical threat hovers; this is not someone to fall out with over bad debts, and luckily they never did.This portrait was one of those pictured in the first Freud show that I had also seen at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1978 when I knew nothing about Freud or his life. There was a secondary portrait of him in the show titled Head of a Big Man.
Back then there was no knowledge or hint about who he was. He was dressed in a gangsterish manner, sort of a muscular Sunday best. Questions hovered, but I had no answers, and the gallery said simply the the subjects were people that the artist knew. It was another Lucian secret, his private life, his hinterland, all his troubles sealed beneath the painted surface.
The Big Man was part of Lucian’s life for more than thirty years, and they became close friends after trusting each other over large sums of money. McLean was the most unlikely modern art collector. In September 2003, Lucian, the Duke of Beaufort and Andrew Parker Bowles traveled in a small private plane to view the bookie’s bounty in McLean’s modest family house in Northern Ireland, the ordinariness of the dwelling belying its extraordinary valuable contents, which any national gallery would now like to own.
McLean was something of a legend in Ulster, born in Randalstown, growing up in Ballymena and staying loyal to the County Antrim where he died and was buried in May 20056. When Northern Ireland legalized betting shops long before the ret of the United Kingdom, he became one of the pioneers of the better industry.
Over the years Lucian tapped many of his rich friends to pay off his gambling debts both to McLean and to the notorious Kray brothers who, at one point, even threatened to cut off his hands and as protection against he encased his front door in steel. Lucian travelled vertically between social extremes, borrowing money from a duke to stave off threats from the most depraved gangsters in London. He always somehow managed to square this bizarre circle.
Painting remained an activity for Lucian that was equally bound up in risk. Surprise motivate him. “I am doing what I find most interesting, what amuses and entertains me. If I knew exactly what I was going to paint in the next minute why would I ever want to do that? It would be so pointless,’ he said, repeating his view that ‘gambling is only exciting if you don’t have any money.” I used to get very good credit because I went about with very rich people.”
Sitting in Clarkes in his eighties nursing a cup of tea (weakly brewed and drowned in milk), chiseling pieces of nougat to nibble, he was then far removed from the risk, remorse and exhilaration of blowing money recklessly on mere chance. He never regretted losing, and neither did he regret giving up gambling. ‘I only look forward, never back,’ he said.
Breakfast with Lucian; The Astounding Life and Outrageous Time’s of Britain’s Great Modern Painter by Geordie Greig; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2013