3. Isaiah Berlin and Lucien Freud

In 1995 the National Portrait Gallery in London offered the British artist Lucien Freud, one of the towering figures of twentieth-century art, a commission: to paint a portrait of his choice which would hang in the Gallery. Freud was the grandson of the eminent psychotherapist Sigmund Freud, and he decided he would like to paint one of his oldest friends, whom he had first met in 1938 at tea with his grandfather in Maresfield Gardens in London: Isaiah Berlin.

Portrait © Lucien Freud

In 1996, in a studio on Kensington Church Street in London, Lucien Freud, 74 years old, and Isaiah Berlin, 86 years old, met again to make art. Berlin sat for Freud more than a dozen times. Freud completed a charcoal drawing of Berlin’s head, which eventually was given to the National Portrait Gallery, but an oil portrait of Berlin sitting in an old armchair was never finished, and was eventually given to Berlin’s stepson who has generously given it to the College on a long loan.

Image: Ramsey & Muspratt © The Trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust

Berlin’s biographer Michael Ignatieff, who interviewed Berlin extensively for his definitive work, describes Freud at work on the charcoal and oil pictures.

“Isaiah sat in an old battered armchair while Freud sketched him first in pencil and then began to paint him in oils. The time passed in gossip and then in silence, broken by the sound of charcoal on paper and paint on canvas. As Freud worked, Isaiah passed in and out of sleep. In the charcoal drawing, roughly eight by ten inches, Isaiah’s eyes are closed, his head back against the back of the armchair, his mouth shut, the curvature of his upper lift perfectly caught, as is the shape of his bare forehead and his cheeks sunken and hollowed with age. In the oil painting, not much larger than a regular sheet of paper, Isaiah is shown leaning back with his head resting on the back of the battered armchair. Unlike the pencil sketch, his eyes are open. He is looking away to the left, full of melancholy, at something we cannot see.”

Isaiah Berlin died the next year, aged 87.

The painting is in a secure room. Those wishing to access the room should ask at the Lodge.

Tim Hitchens