For 15 years, the great artist took breakfast and lunch at Sally Clarke's cafe-restaurant. Here, she recalls the man she fed… and eventually sat for
'Intense': Working at Night, 2005, a photograph by Freud's assistant David Dawson, shows the artist at work in his London studio. Photograph: David Dawson/ courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert
Mr Freud started coming to the little cafe at the back of my shop about 15 years ago. I didn't know it then, but he worked close by in a studio in Holland Park, so we were quite convenient for him. Soon after this, he bought a house a few doors along the street from us and from then on became more and more of a regular. He would come for breakfast and lunch often, bringing with him whoever he was working with at the time – Leigh Bowery, Kate Moss, David Hockney.
There came a time, however, when I realised that there was a risk that he might be bothered in the cafe, so I decided to offer him a table in the restaurant, which was empty at that time of day, and at the same time I could make sure that he was somewhat "wrapped in cotton wool". I should say that he never asked for this special treatment.
If David Dawson, his studio assistant and model, was with him, breakfast tended to be centred around a pile of newspapers – but he would be perfectly happy by himself. What he ate for breakfast with us changed over the years, but it was Earl Grey tea in the beginning with milk and ahuge pain aux raisins – the size of a saucer – which he devoured easily. As the years went on, he graduated to coffee, a sort of latte which we called a Mr Freud latte, being even milkier than normal.
Often, he would invite me to join him and David – I loved watching him enjoy the little Portuguese custard tarts that we make. He had a very sweet tooth. Sometimes, he would consume a whole bar of our homemade nougat – at breakfast time! Occasionally, I'd make him scrambled eggs with toast; at weekends, he would come in for brunch.
For lunch, he would always choose fish – whichever fish was on the menu. He was very interested in food and I think he was a good cook himself. He loved game and I remember one day Brigadier Parker Bowles brought him some partridge from the weekend shoot and he threw them straight into the oven and ate them the following day.
The first time we spoke properly was soon after he had moved house. He came to the restaurant one afternoon and asked to see me. He told me that he was having problems with his neighbours and wanted some planning permission advice. I'm not sure why he asked me, but what struck me more than anything, aside from just how charming, polite and lovely he was, was his German accent. It was dramatic – very guttural and individual.
I sat for him for three works. For the first painting, David Dawson asked to see me alone at my restaurant one morning. "Lucian is wondering if you would like to sit for him." This came as an enormous shock, but a few months later I was sitting in one of the most famous chairs in the world, looking through tall, wide French windows, into and over buddleia, bamboo hedges, a fig tree and bay trees. I had somehow imagined the house to be filled with music, but other than an abundance of sweet-smelling flowers, the house was filled with silence, concentration, thinking and looking – intent looking.
Within a short time, I learned the signals he gave; his hand moved to the top of his head equalled "move the top of your head over a fraction". His hand sweeping in front like an elegant tennis forehand meant "adjust the angle of your head very slightly". It was about detail, detail, detail. For such fine work, of face, hair or eyelid, the brush size seemed huge and yet the strokes on the canvas were light, delicate and few.
I had planned to spend my "sitting" time writing future menus in my head, checking my diary or making "to do" lists during the rest periods, but I soon realised that I was wishing to work as hard, and as intensely, as he was. This was a partnership: one giving and the other taking, but that taking was also giving – giving his all, and in return for the sitter's giving, a most special, unique and privileged experience was received.
The painting was finished three years ago, and very soon after this I sat for what was to be an etching, but he decided to keep drawing and drawing on the plate instead, so it was never etched. Then he started on another head and shoulder painting on canvas, which was about half finished, I think, when we stopped working, only a few weeks before his death.
Of course I miss him. I got very used to seeing him every day. Arriving in the morning, I would often walk past the restaurant and see him through the window, already sitting having breakfast and he would wave with his arms high above his head.