February 23 2010
There has long been a connection between painting and sculpture and equestrian sports such as horse racing. The subject crops up regularly in Christie’s biannual auctions of sporting art (the next one is on March 11). But four years ago this month, the auction house sold a portrait that offered a less conventional view of the ties between a famous painter, the world of gambling and the turf.
Man in a String Chair, by Britain’s greatest living artist, Lucian Freud, sold for £4.152m – the seventh-highest price paid for a Freud at public auction. The man in the chair was the bookmaker Victor Chandler, who sat for the portrait over an 18-month period in 1988 and 1989 and, having started out as the man who laid Freud bets, ended up as his friend. Chandler first became acquainted with Freud at Wheelers in Old Compton Street, a favourite of the old Soho habitué and horse racing writer Jeffrey Bernard, in the 1980s. By then, Freud had officially been “warned off” all British racecourses for nonpayment of gambling debts.
In those days Freud was a manic punter who frequented nocturnal gaming parties in London in the 1950s and 1960s. His skill at cards and roulette was apparently not much better than his aptitude for picking winners, but Chandler always felt that “the money never meant anything to him. It was always just the thrill.” There’s a popular but inaccurate belief that Freud painted Chandler to settle an account with him but, although the artist did give pictures to one bookie in lieu of arrears, the VC portrait was done at the painter’s request and Chandler paid for it – though, having agreed to sit for just a head and shoulders and ending up with a life-size portrait, he felt he got a bargain.
The sittings took place up to three times a week in the evenings at the artist’s top-floor studio in Holland Park in west London, and Chandler fondly recalls “the beautiful furniture and a huge Rodin bronze. You’re working for him when you sit for him. He used to wear denim shirts, chef’s trousers and unlaced mountain boots to paint in and, if he made a mistake, he’d jump back suddenly and swear at himself.”
The two men would go out to dinner afterwards; Freud paying one night and Chandler the next. The artist who “liked places like Bibendum and Annabel’s because they stayed open late” proved a well-informed conversationalist on many subjects, with art, women and racing always to the fore.
One night he took Chandler to the National Gallery after closing time for the ultimate private view. “It was about 11pm and, other than the security men, we had the place to ourselves. To walk around the National at night and have him talk about each picture was unforgettable.” Freud loved the 19th-century portrait artist Sir John Singer Sargent, especially his painting of Lord Ribblesdale. “He stood in front of that for ages. ‘Those are the best pair of boots ever painted’ he kept saying.”
The portrait of Chandler – sitting legs crossed, wearing a summer linen suit and shoes but no socks – is not the only one of Freud’s works that the bookmaker bought. Nor is Freud the only artist he collects. He’s also keen on the work of PJ Crook – one of her big crowd scenes hangs in his office in Gibraltar – and on the sculptures and portraits of Alan Brassington, whose representation of the jockey Lester Piggott is a personal favourite.
The 58-year-old Chandler may no longer be a regular in the old bohemian haunts where he and Freud would meet 20 years ago, but he returns to Britain from Spain most years for the Cheltenham Festival. This March he’ll be cheering on the grey horse Zaynar, which he owns with a syndicate of friends entitled Men In Our Position. The five-year-old, a former Cheltenham winner, is 5-1 ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle, but his trainer Nicky Henderson also looks after the reigning champion Punjabi, who invariably peaks in the spring. He seems to be underestimated by the bookies, Chandler included, and looks good each-way value at 14-1 with Stan James.