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And it occurred to me on my way here that I’ve got to have my bloody photograph taken. I’m very shabby.’ Shabbiness has always been part of Lucas’s persona.

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Sarah Lucas arrives at a restaurant near Spitalfields Market in east London looking like, well, Sarah Lucas – or, more precisely, the Sarah Lucas I recognise from her grungy photographic self-portraits of the 1990s, in which the young British artist adopts various enigmatic poses: eating a banana while wearing a leather jacket, having a fag squatting semi-naked on a loo, standing before a public toilet holding an enormous salmon.

In these pictures, some of which will be shown in a new retrospective of more than two decades of her work opening down the road at the Whitechapel Gallery on October 2, Lucas dresses down in heavy, workaday clobber: ripped jeans, crumpled T-shirts, stout leather boots.

Often she is smoking, or seen with a packet of Marlboro Lights by her side.

There are occasional nods to her gender – white knickers hanging on a washing line, a pair of greasy fried eggs positioned so that the yolks evoke her nipples – but these touches feel confrontational and ironic, especially when coupled with her surly, blank expression.

Born in Islington in 1962 with a milkman for a father (‘He was the tit,’ she says, with a naughty laugh), Lucas gravitated to down-at-heel Shoreditch after graduating in 1987 from Goldsmiths College, where she was a year or two ahead of other successful Young British Artists including Damien Hirst and her former boyfriends Gary Hume and Angus Fairhurst.

In 1988 she showed at Freeze, the warehouse exhibition organised by Hirst that launched his generation. ‘The reality of Freeze was that there was a bit more criticism between people.

I can remember people thinking, “Oh, why is he in it? ‘After Freeze there was particular interest in Gary, Damien, Mat [Collishaw], Michael Landy, Angus.

Lucas, it seems, is not the sort of woman who enjoys making herself up and tottering about on high heels. She walks into St John Bread & Wine wearing a loose grey T-shirt and roomy stonewashed jeans – considerably less coiffed than the restaurant’s other diners, who include the actress Keira Knightley.

When I tell her that she is dressed as I was hoping, minus the fried eggs, her no-nonsense face erupts into a big grin, revealing flashes of gold.

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