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The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame, 1968-2011
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The first volume of William Feaver’s compendious biography of Lucian Freud left the painter aged 46, a figure of note to gossip columnists as much as to the art world, an artist of middling success plying the old-fashioned trades of portraiture and figure painting when snazzier styles and modes were in the ascendent, and a man with an uncountable number of women and children left bobbing in his wake. This concluding volume picks up the career in 1968 and is, like the first, based on the often daily phone calls and meetings between the two men over many years: “Hello, Villiam, how goes it?” Freud would start, and off they’d natter.
The sheer volume of material garnered and the liveliness of Freud’s speech and orbit mean that the whole project is less like traditional biography than extended reportage mixed with diary entries. This is an account of a life rather than a critical examination of one, and the art history is minimal; the paintings were Freud’s purpose so for Feaver their role is as props that framed his life rather than as objects for critical scrutiny in themselves.
The second half of Freud’s life followed the pattern set by the first and the volume opens with the painter shinning up the drainpipe of the London home of Jacquetta Eliot — married, Countess of St Germans, and Sixties It girl. Freud was less wooer than stalker and Eliot found him “very feral”, but, like so many others before and after, she succumbed. Once she was reeled in, he demanded that she stop taking contraception. “You are mine and I want a child.” Monstrous in itself, but even more so when he airily said of other girlfriends: “Nothing to do with me that they’re having children.”
Feaver is resolutely non-judgmental about Freud’s treatment of women, but notes that to sit for him “was to serve, more often than not in more than one capacity”. Some lovers approached their role with more sang-froid than others. On starting her liaison with him, a young American artist named Alice Weldon noted: “There were ten women he saw regularly — it was clear I was going to be a bit peripheral.” Eliot was less forgiving. She and Freud fought. “She bit me through the shoulder — broke a tooth,” he complained, “and I was banned from a swimming bath because of it.” He would pretend not to be in and she’d smash a window and see him hiding behind the curtains. She wrote “FART” on the back of his Bentley and he sent her the bill; when she ran him off his bicycle he demanded £68 to buy another one from Harrods. She also insisted he write their son, Freddy, a letter telling the boy he had been wanted, but when Freud and Jacquetta finally broke up he asked for the letter back.
In all the tens of thousands of words of verbatim speech across the two volumes, Freud never discusses the psychological effect of his treatment of his children. By buying some (but not all) a flat, or paying school fees, or seeing them occasionally, he seemed to think he had fulfilled his obligations. When he started painting his teenage daughters nude he saw it as a way of getting to know favoured children better (of less favoured offspring he said: “If they want to feel overlooked they will”), but also that it saved him from the trouble of finding sitters for what was always an arduous and lengthy process. “It’s nice when you breed your own models.” When one of his daughters, Rose Boyt, was sitting for him she told him she was pregnant. “His first instinct was not congratulations, or I’ll be a grandfather, but the fact that that’ll really f*** up my painting.” What is just as extraordinary, perhaps, is that the children seemed, by and large, to accept all this largely without resentment.
Professionally Freud started to make proper headway and his rising status was acknowledged by a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1974. This in turn bolstered both his prices and his confidence, which grew in the 1980s when he started to paint his six-footers — the most notable were of the oversize performance artist Leigh Bowery. Freud was never keen on his work being interpreted — “I hate mystification” — but did want to take figure painting where it had never been before. “I don’t want to put anyone in my mould. I want portraiture which portrays them, not here’s another of mine.”
The outlandish Bowery suited his purposes admirably, as did Bowery’s friend Sue Tilley, the abundantly fleshy subject of Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, painted in 1995 and sold in 2008 to Roman Abramovich for £17.2 million, a world record price for a living artist.
From the early 1990s, Freud’s professional and occasionally personal life was immeasurably smoothed by the acquisition of David Dawson as an amanuensis. Dawson, a recent art school graduate, would stay with Freud for the rest of his life — despite being occasionally referred to as “Slave” — and served as studio assistant, handyman, gardener, logistics man, sometime model and walker of the whippets that the painter loved and fed on Evian water and prime mince tossed on the floor.
Freud rarely painted to commission and although he did portray some famous faces, such as Jerry Hall and Kate Moss, he turned down more. Madonna would leave answerphone messages: “Would I phone her urgently. I never did.” Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted his wife painted: “He even threatened me with theatre tickets.” Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin was rejected too, as was Pope John XXIII. Nor did Princess Diana make the cut — as Freud’s friend and legal fixer Lord Goodman warned wryly, it was: “A great, great, wonderful idea. But I shouldn’t leave her in a room with Lucian.” (Incidentally, Prince Charles’s suggestion that Freud exchange one of his pictures for “one of my rotten old watercolours” got nowhere either.) Freud did, however, paint the Queen. It was his suggestion, although he never knew what she made of the finished portrait except for a gnomic: “I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.” However, an unabated stream of proposals just kept flowing, once from a man who dangled the information that “I have no ears, despite which I’m a vicar”, but usually from very young women keen to be painted — and more.
Freud emerges, dab by dab, fully three-dimensional from Feaver’s vibrant recitation of dealers and models, works in progress and gambling (he lost often enough, but once won £1 million on the Cheltenham Gold Cup courtesy of a tip from Andrew Parker Bowles, whose portrait he also painted), family, friendship and food (woodcock or deep-fried parsley for breakfast). If Freud’s pictures are at heart all about palpable reality, the same is true of Feaver’s daunting enterprise. His subject — his friend — is selfish, often reprehensible, spoilt and sometimes vicious (not above posting dog faeces through an enemy’s letterbox), but also generous, honest about his failings and capable of inspiring great loyalty in others. David Hockney, another sitter, described Freud’s portraits as being essentially “an account of looking”, and that’s just what Feaver’s book is too.
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