The work Four Eggs on a Plate, 2002, was given to the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, affectionately known as “Debo”, as a gift by the painter Lucian Freud in 2004. Now, the remarkable story of an enduring friendship between two of the defining figures of our time is revealed as the painting is offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London.
Debo was the youngest of the six Mitford sisters who captivated British society in the 1940s and 50s – marrying Andrew Cavendish in 1941. Cavendish became the 11th Duke of Devonshire in 1950 and Debo then dedicated her life to the running of the Chatsworth. Debo was famed for a somewhat eccentric pursuit for a society beauty: a passion for chickens. The artist’s gift is a tender memento of a lifelong bond between the great artist and the larger-than-life duchess, “Good old Lu. I take him eggs every time I go to London”, Debo recalled. Estimated £100,000–150,000, Four Eggs on a Plate, will be offered as part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 1 July.
Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist in Contemporary Art: “We’re incredibly excited to be offering a work of such personal significance to both Lucian Freud and the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. This small, exquisitely beautiful painting was a treasured gift and today it stands as a token of their enduring friendship. Four Eggs on a Plate is a painting like no other. We see Freud’s tremendous virtuosity as a painter, transforming a simple subject into a work of extraordinary power – and we see the portrait of a friendship between an artist and a duchess.”
Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died aged 94, in September 2014. She had kept Four Eggs on a Plate, a treasured gift from the painter Lucian Freud, wrapped in cloth from the artist’s studio in a blue box with a note: “Box & rag he uses in his studio containing the painting of 4 eggs given me by Lucian Freud autumn 2002, DD”. This gift, a startlingly beautiful still life, is a painting laden with meaning for both artist and recipient. When offered at Sotheby’s on July 1st, the lot will include the note, the artist’s cloth, and the blue box in which it was kept.
Over the course of her colourful life Debo became firm friends with the most influential figures of the 20th-century – talking on the phone with John F. Kennedy, exchanging letters with Evelyn Waugh and forming a close bond with Lucian Freud. Alongside this nexus of power, influence and artistic greatness, she found refuge in tending to chickens from an early age. Her sister, Jessica Mitford, remembered her spending “silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen’s face when it is laying an egg”.
Debo and hens were inseparable. She was immortalised pictured alongside her chickens in the pages of fashion magazines, photographed by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. Weber’s famous image (pictured right) captured the Duchess feeding her flock in a ballgown on the sprawling Chatsworth Estate. Even her memoirs were published under the titles “Counting My Chickens” and “Home to Roost”. At her funeral in 2014, attended by hundreds of mourners as the cortege passed through the grounds of her beloved Chatsworth, the wicker coffin was decorated with a small basket of fresh eggs.
Freud was the very first guest when Debo and her husband the 11th Duke of Devonshire moved into Chatsworth. “Lucian Freud came for the weekend”, wrote the Duchess to her sister Diana, “he seems very nice and not at all wicked but I’m always wrong about that kind of thing.”
From then on the artist would become a regular a guest of Debo and the Duke. He would stay for long periods, painting murals in the house and eventually completing six portraits of the family, including one of Debo herself: Woman in a White Shirt, 1956.
These visits to Chatsworth were part of a ‘dual’ life that Freud so enjoyed, he kept one foot firmly planted in the gritty Bohemian underworld where he would fraternise with gamblers and villains in seedy London drinking dens – while the other was in the glamorous social circles of the British aristocracy. During this extraordinarily turbulent social life, countless friends would come and go, but his bond with Debo remained a rare constant throughout. In Debo he had found a kindred spirit, someone who could match his legendary energy eccentricity and vitality for life. She recalled visiting the artist to sit for a portrait at his Paddington studio in the late 50s:
“I had a black Mini which I kept in London and Lucian borrowed it several times. Being driven in London by Lucian Freud was hazardous. Marble Arch was terrifying. Hyde Park Corner even worse. He was Mr. Toad, scarf and all. He weaved in and out of the swirling traffic, avoiding buses and bicycles and angry taxi drivers by inches. When I shouted, “Stop. Slower. Please!” he said, “It’s all right. They’ve all got brakes.”
It is testament to the warmth of their friendship that Debo would take eggs with her on each of her trips to London. If the artist was not home, she would leave them on his doorstep. So Freud’s painting was very much a reciprocal gift – a heart-felt token of a lifetime of shared memories. In May 2002, the year Freud painted Four Eggs on a Plate, Debo recalls meeting the artist for lunch, his legendary energy undiminished: “I had lunch with Lu Freud the other day. What an extraordinary man, he is exactly the same as he was when 25 and now he’s 80, bounding upstairs, darting down the street. Painting away like billy-o…. ” This virtuoso depiction of four eggs not only recalls Freud’s intimate relationship with Chatsworth and the Duchess, but also shows one of the greatest painters of his generation at the at the peak of his powers.