David Dawson starts work at 8 a.m., sitting naked on the floor with his whippet, Eli.
For the past two and a half years he has been posing for a large, still unfinished painting by Lucian Freud. Dawson holds the same position, seven days a week. There are moments, he says, “when you think it’s just not going to end.”
At around 12:30 Dawson, 50, goes off duty, drives home, has a nap, and begins the day all over again. This time, he paints his own pictures. An exhibition of them is on view at a private gallery (only through Feb. 25, by appointment). Large, powerful landscapes of the view from his house in northwest London, they reveal a new side to Dawson’s activity.
So far he has been visible as an increasingly important figure in Freud’s painting of the past decade and a half. Dawson -- or bits of him -- have appeared in seven works by Freud since the mid-1990s. They first met after Dawson graduated from the Royal College of Art, where he once shared a studio with Tracey Emin. He began to help Freud as an assistant, and then as model.
“My work commitment with Lucian has grown organically, along with our friendship, we always maneuvered it around so it suits both him and me,” Dawson says. “Predominately, it suits him more, but I’ve managed to make it work for me too.”
In one Freud painting, just Dawson’s feet appear, beside his dog. In another, only his hand is visible, comforting Freud’s own late pet Pluto. In several more, the whole of Dawson can be seen, with or without clothes. It all amounts to a marathon of sitting.
Always a slow worker, Freud -- now 88 -- hasn’t speeded up with the passing years. Dawson is stoical about the length of time the current work is taking.
“It’s coming on,” he says. “That’s the way Lucian works, he keeps pushing a bit more every day and it slowly becomes more accomplished. Of course, there are days when you just feel: Good God! Move on a bit faster! For the most part I enjoy the process, being around painting, and watching someone else doing it.”
Dawson has taken many beautiful photographs of Freud at work. One of these, showing the painter engaged in his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is owned by the U.K. Government Art Collection, and was chosen as an office decoration by Peter Mandelson, whose last post was business secretary. Nick Clegg now has it on his office wall.
The deputy prime minister is “intrigued by the encounter between two great survivors of modern British life,” according to a report in the Guardian newspaper. Whether Clegg, or any member of the present administration, will endure as long as Freud or the monarch remains to be seen.
Dawson’s photographs have the lucid structure that reveals an artist’s eye at work. Many of the best photographers -- Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example -- were trained as painters. Dawson is modest about his work with a camera. “I just think, that’s an interesting moment, point and shoot. That’s the joy of it.”
His oils -- all suburban landscapes -- are superficially very different from Freud’s, yet the two painters share a belief that painting is a supremely difficult business, requiring immense time and concentration.
“If you are struggling every day with how to compose a painting,” says Dawson, “taking a photograph is so easy!”
David Dawson’s paintings are on show at 61a Cadogan Square, SW1 (by appointment only, e-mail: email@example.com).
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)