The wall above Jeremy King’s desk in his Fitzrovia mews house is covered in a grid of framed photographs. They tell the story of the restaurateur’s friendship with the artist Lucian Freud, who dined almost every night at The Wolseley, King’s homage to Europe’s Grand Cafés on London’s Piccadilly. Taken by the artist’s studio assistant, David Dawson, the photos capture by turns quotidian and poignant moments: a trip to the Arsenal football stadium; King driving Freud in his vintage Bristol; around a table in Brasserie Lipp. One image, taken by King a week before the artist’s death, shows him reading a letter. They are, says King, pictures of a friendship “that enriched my life”.

Freud’s etching of King, for which he sat between 2006 and 2011
Freud’s etching of King, for which he sat between 2006 and 2011 © David Dawson

But these pictures tell one side of the story, for of course there are others; those that the German-born British artist created of King. From 2006 until Freud’s death in 2011, King sat for two portraits, visiting the artist’s home as often as two mornings a week. Freud first painted a close cropped oil portrait. Next was an ambitious three-year project, an etching on a 78.8cm by 64.2cm copper plate. This plate is being auctioned at Sotheby’s on 15 October.

“It wasn’t the result, it was the process, that is the real treasure,” says King of the experience. “We would quite often sing while he was working. We both had a liking for songs that took him back . . . ” He names “Cheek To Cheek, to which Freud once danced with Greta Garbo. Other times Freud would make up limericks about his friends, says King, or swap anecdotes about horseracing. Freud’s stories were often colourful and wild, but “Lucian was always very measured in the way he spoke . . . quite matter of fact”, says King, himself the epitome of understated grace. “He would talk of extraordinary things as if they were everyday.”

Freud’s unfinished etching of King, to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on 15 October (estimate £250,000-£350,000)
Freud’s unfinished etching of King, to be auctioned by Sotheby’s on 15 October (estimate £250,000-£350,000) © Courtesy of Sotheby’s

It’s this friendship that contributes to making the etching so significant, says Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s lead auctioneer and European chairman. “Lucian was in many ways the most pre-eminent portraitist of his generation and of his time . . . and who better to paint or draw or etch than one of the greatest restaurateurs of his time, Jeremy King? It’s a very giddy mixture.” The piece itself, which has not been “bitten” (dipped in acid to finish it), “has a uniqueness, but also a sculptural feel to it, because it’s got this kind of incredible scale . . . and a bronze — radiant — patina.” Its estimate is £250,000 to £350,000; top prices for Freud’s portraits have reached just over $56mn. The sale coincides with the centenary of Freud’s birth and significant survey shows such as New Perspectives at the National Gallery.

That the work was one of Freud’s last, if not the last, and that King can no longer be found creating the singularly convivial atmosphere at The Wolseley following his controversial parting of ways with the group’s new owners, makes the etching “extraordinarily poignant”, continues Barker. A portrait, almost, of an era: “It’s a very English — well, it’s a specifically very London story,” says Barker. Freud, he adds, “was a very poignant sort of social commentator . . . it won’t have been lost on him that The Wolseley was such a melting pot of the great and the good.” King he describes as a “Hogarthian figure in the midst of all of this, like a Peyps”. Freud “loved watching people”, says King. “And there’s no better place to watch people than in the Grand Café.” The artist remained “one of the only people I would sit down with and the only person I’d ever drink with”. When Freud died, his regular table at The Wolseley was covered with a black cloth.

King sitting for Freud c2006
King sitting for Freud c2006 © David Dawson

The sittings stretched out over the years, but the etching never seemed to be finished. Was he just keen to keep the restaurateur visiting? King pauses, then smiles quietly. Days before his death at 88, the artist took up his chalk and drew a line either side of King’s head. “Oh fuck,” he recalls Dawson saying. “We can’t make the etching . . . he wants to bring in some of the background. If we made the etching now, it wouldn’t be faithful to his intention.” As a result, the copper plate up for auction remains a work in progress; a portrait not just of a man, but of a friendship, suspended in time.

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