The Magazine

Freudian Brush

A modern master’s indelible style and disordered life.

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By HENRIK BERING
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) did not tolerate lateness, as Mick Jagger’s onetime wife Jerry Hall found out the hard way back in 1997. For four months, she had been sitting for her portrait, in which she was breast-feeding her and Jagger’s son. But being punctual was not among Ms. Hall’s virtues, and after arriving late on a number of occasions, Freud abruptly canceled the project, informing his agent: “The painting’s had a sex change. .  .  . Jerry didn’t show up for two sittings, so I changed her into a man.” Freud had simply painted out Jerry Hall’s face and stuck the head of his assistant David Dawson on to her breast-feeding body. The somewhat unusual result was sold to another client.  

Lucian Freud in his studio (1954)

Lucian Freud in his studio (1954)

getty images

This incident appears in Geordie Greig’s vivid portrayal of Freud, which is based on a decade’s worth of Saturday morning sessions at Clarke’s Restaurant in London’s Notting Hill. The author, now the editor of the Mail on Sunday, first got interested in Freud while a pupil at Eton and, having pursued the elusive artist for decades, finally gained access to the man he regards as “the greatest realist figurative painter of the 20th century.” 

“He wasn’t one for great self-analysis; he was almost animal,” recalls Freud’s bookie. Wisely, Greig himself goes easy on the analysis. Instead, he delivers his subject in the flesh. Freud was “an odd mix of vanity with a touch of the vagrant,” writes Greig. Old catalogues show him, emanating raw power, dressed like a cross between a “pastry chef and a bare-knuckle fighter,” with wrinkled shirt and scarf, checkered cook’s pants, and storm trooper boots sans laces. 

Beneath the rough exterior, though, Freud had a taste for the finer things in life, as evidenced by his Georgian house on Kensington Church Street, furnished in a style Greig characterizes as “Punk Georgian.” Among the general untidiness, one could find bits of 18th-century furniture, elegant cutlery, and fine glasses. A visitor recalls Freud standing at his easel in his pajama bottoms, “a tin of Beluga caviar with a silver spoon in one hand, his paintbrush in the other,” and a half-bottle of flat Salon champagne next to him. He had finely chiseled features and bright eyes that were constantly moving; his voice was pleasant and cultivated. He spoke with a very clear enunciation—“It was not so much German as just a preciseness,” notes Neil MacGregor, former director of the London National Gallery—and he rolled his “r”s, to particular effect in the word “corrrupt.” 

Born in Berlin in 1922, Lucian Freud was the middle brother of three; their grandfather was the great Sigmund Freud. With the Nazi takeover of Germany, the family moved to Great Britain. Trouble began in Lucian’s teenage years. He was expelled from boarding school, and his mindset may be gathered from these lines written while he was hospitalized with appendicitis: “When on a bunk bed you lie, with loathing in your yellow eyes swimming in sickly fat.” His entry into art school had been a sculpture entitled Three-legged Horse—imperfectly equipped, one gathers, because the artist had run out of stone. Perhaps inevitably, his art school in East Anglia burned down, with the suspected cause a Freudian cigarette butt carelessly thrown away.    

Until four years before his death, Freud’s London studio was situated on Holland Park Road in Paddington, where, in the early days, he worked among swindlers, robbers, and bookies. At that time, he himself would spend the occasional night in a cell, locked up for fighting. (He carefully explained to Greig how to punch someone without breaking one’s thumb.) Until Freud got rich, and gambling lost its thrill, he was addicted to betting on horses and dogs and playing the casinos; his studio door was reinforced with a quarter-inch steel plate to keep debt collectors out.