Hitting the canvas – how the artist Freud came to ringside for McGuigan
There was a crowd of 26,000 “mostly Irish” boxing fans crammed into a football ground in London with 20 million more watching on the BBC. It was the night of June 8, 1985, and the occasion was a fight for the world featherweight title between Barry McGuigan, the Clones Cyclone, and Eusebio Pedroza, the reigning World Boxing Association Champion.
seated inappropriately at the ring and not mentioned in newspaper reports was the painter Lucian Freud, whose portrait, girl with eyes closedwhich fetched £15,174,500 (€18.05m) at Christie’s auction house in London last month.
Earlier in the night he was attending an exhibition by his friend, Dublin-born artist Francis Bacon. Freud arrived at the venue with Limerick bookmaker JP McManus.
McGuigan and Freud were an unlikely combination but what held them together was Belfast bookmaker Barney Eastwood, who was McGuigan’s manager.
In the years that followed, the catchphrase “Thank you, Mr. Eastwood” helped both the Clones-born boxer and Eastwood, a former Inter-County Tyrone Gaelic footballer, to fame in boxing circles around the world.
Meanwhile Eastwood was not only a friend and supporter of Freud, but also his bookie. It was a relationship that would eventually get the artist, who now ranks with Bacon among the greatest of the late 20th century, in deep trouble because of his love of gambling and horses.
But that night, Freud, McManus, George Best, Willie John McBride, Alex Higgins, Phil Coulter and a host of other celebrities were among the raucous thousands of Irish fans who flocked to Queens Park Rangers football stadium in Shepherd’s Bush to get that , what would go down as one of the greatest nights in Irish sporting history.
All those years ago, professional boxing had a cachet that it seems to have lost in recent years.
The prospect of an Irish world champion amid the troubles reinforced the prospect of a fairytale ending.
It was an era when sectarianism cut deeply into almost every aspect of Irish life, including sport. But McGuigan has managed to bridge that gap. He was a Southern Catholic but his Ulster roots gave him all of Ireland appeal.
It has often been said that he was as popular on Belfast’s Shankill Road as he was at the falls. He inspired the slogan of those yearning for peace amid the sectarian strife of the day: “Leave the fighting to McGuigan.”
That night almost the entire population of every town, village and street in Ireland, whether they liked boxing or not, seemed moved.
Referring to the occasion in an interview with The guard In 2015, McGuigan said, “Lucian [Freud] loved his boxing and his personal bookie was Alfie McLean, a guy from Belfast who was my manager Barney Eastwood’s best bud.
“Lucian owed him so much money that he gave Alfie paintings as compensation. They were such a colorful crowd there that JP [McManus] told me it was so amazing that he never wanted to go to a fight again. He said, ‘You couldn’t top that night’.”
It all started with the crowd endlessly chanting “Here we go, here we go” as the build began, sometimes drowning out the film’s theme Rocky. The spirits rose again when McGuigan’s father, show band singer Pat McGeehan, sang DannyBoy in the ring.
The calmest man on that crazy night was undoubtedly Eastwood, described by biographer William Feaver in The Life of Lucian Freud as “Ulster’s preeminent bookmaker”.
Years later, the artist, whose paintings were then fetching astronomical sums, recalled that Eastwood had “almost bought him things” and asked him to do a portrait of his daughter. But eventually he acquired one of Freud’s most famous paintings, man in a blue shirta portrait of George Dyer, lover of Francis Bacon, was painted in 1965 and last exhibited in London in 2016.
Eastwood had met the painter through their mutual friend McLean, his partner in racehorses and a chain of Northern Irish bookshops. But it was a fleeting friendship.
In his book, Feaver wrote that Freud witnessed Eastwood give McLean a black eye during an argument at the Hotel Ritz in Piccadilly.
McLean was interested in art and he had plenty of money, which he cleverly asked Freud to invest for him by buying paintings. The bookie and his sons also agreed to sit for the painter – a task that required a great deal of patience as his work was painfully slow.
“The first thing that struck me when I met Alfie was his conversation,” Freud later recalled. “So amazing, so Irish.”
Freud had been in Ireland since his youth, when he was in Dublin with Patrick Swift and Brendan Behan, and was entertained at the Luggala in Wicklow by Garech Browne, whose cousin Lady Caroline Blackwood was to become one of his wives.
But another thing he liked about Eastwood and McLean was that they took his bets, a situation that eventually led to Freud being banned from all racecourses in England.
Then as now, Northern Ireland had its own sterling banknotes. Issued by the Governor and Society of the Bank of Ireland, the large red £100 note was quite different from those circulating in the rest of the United Kingdom. Through his dealings with Eastwood and McLean, Freud had amassed “great heaps” of what he called “Ulster cash.”
Two or three weeks before the 1982 Grand National he went to his local Ladbrokes in London and left Grittar a large pile of these bills at odds of 16-1. After handing over the money, the clerk – who had never seen a Northern Ireland ticket – called his boss and declined to take the bet.
“I want to remind you — not that I’m blaming you personally — that I consider myself ‘on,'” Freud told the clerk.
“That meant I had the bet,” he later told Feaver of that interaction. “So of course I went around the corner to the Corals, who were only too happy to accept it [the bet].”
When Grittar duly conceded on the day of 7-1, Freud claimed he had won £3,000 from Ladbrokes even though they didn’t take his money. He then deducted that sum from the £15,000 he already owed them.
Lost bets are not legally recoverable but Ladbrokes retaliated by being penalized by racing authorities for failing to pay a gambling debt and being ‘warned’ by all racecourses in England.
“As a result he thereafter placed his bets with Irish bookmakers, principally Alfie,” Feaver wrote. This friendship with McLean and Eastwood was strong enough to earn the artist a ringside seat as McGuigan and Pedroza fought for the world title for 15 rounds.
The Panamanian was initially in the lead, but gradually the Clones man, roared at by the frenzied crowd, took control and put his opponent on the canvas before being declared the winner on points.
In 2011 Freud died, who was at the height of his powers at the time.
McGuigan and Barney Eastwood’s relationship ended badly in 1986 after the new champion was defeated in Las Vegas, losing his title to Steve Cruz.
Things got worse when the bookmaker sued his former protégé for defamation and was awarded £450,000 in the High Court in Belfast.
But that was small compared to the £120m he made when he sold his 54 betting shops – to Ladbrokes, Freud’s old sparring partner.
When Eastwood died in 2020, McGuigan paid tribute, saying, “We’ve accomplished great things together and shared some amazing times.”
The other Belfast bookie, McLean, who died in 2006, is said to have amassed more than 50 Freud paintings worth up to £100million and only paid a fraction of that sum – not least because of the painter’s gambling debts.
23 works from the collection were loaned to the Irish Museum of Modern Art for five years and exhibited last August.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/boxing/hitting-the-canvas-how-artist-freud-came-to-be-ringside-for-mcguigan-41581714.html Hitting the canvas – how the artist Freud came to ringside for McGuigan