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.
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.
Freud’s acquaintances were found at the extremes of society, among the shady types in Soho and the aristocracy: “I travel vertically, not horizontally,” he said. At both ends, he found a rejection of the normal constraints of bourgeois society. Of his artist colleagues, Freud’s closest friend was Francis Bacon, Freud’s most successful portrait of whom Robert Hughes once characterized as “a grenade a fraction of a second before it explodes.” When Bacon returned the favor, the results were less immediately recognizable—although this didn’t prevent the typically smudged Bacon triptych of Freud from recently becoming the most expensive painting ever sold at auction ($142.4 million). The two frequented the Colony Room, a notorious watering hole on Soho’s Dean Street, and though different in styles, both stayed clear of abstract and conceptual art. For a long time, Bacon was the successful one while Freud was written off as a “parochial sideshow,” especially in America. When Freud started making money, Bacon became jealous and ended their friendship.
With his aura of menace and feral energy, Freud was irresistible to women. He was charming and well-read, could recite poetry by Goethe, Eliot, and Yeats, as well as naughty quatrains by the Earl of Rochester—whatever the occasion called for. And he moved well, “slid[ing] across the kitchen linoleum in his socks as if on skates.” He was also a nifty dancer. One admirer, Lady Lucinda Lambton, described him as being “as magical as he was malign,” with an evil streak like “a silver thread through a pound note. . . . I worshipped every inch of him while being terrified.” Keeping track of all his mistresses can be complicated: At one point, he was even sleeping with his ex-wife’s daughter. He fathered at least 14 acknowledged children, although 30-40 might be a truer estimate. He refused to have any of his offspring live with him, as this would interfere with his painting.
The one constant in this general chaos was his obsession with work. Starting out, he had used a linear style, inspired by the old German masters, and worked with tiny brushes. But prodded by critics, and by Bacon, he changed to broader brushes and looser strokes. Disliking bright colors, he favored a palette of grays and browns. He was also an extremely slow painter. When he was working on Two Plants (1977-80), a mistress and model notes, “he was working on it obsessively leaf by leaf, almost as if they were growing at the plants’ own rate.” Sitting for Freud tested the subject’s endurance, as documented in Martin Gayford’s account Man with a Blue Scarf (2010), and if Freud did not like the result, he would destroy it. In some cases, he had professional thieves snatch from galleries those of his works he considered substandard.
While he did not smudge the faces of sitters, as Bacon delighted in doing, Freud deliberately made his people ugly. When his friend Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, commander of the Household Cavalry, complained that his stomach appeared to be bursting through his open uniform jacket, Freud promptly added extra fat to it. His 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth was pronounced by one critic to rival Quentin Massys’s Grotesque Old Woman (1525) for the title of “world’s ugliest portrait.”
For a man who did not want to be regarded as a “freak painter,” Freud produced his share of human oddities, such as his nude portraits of the performance artist Leigh Bowery and a 300-pound female social services worker. Not to mention Naked Man with Rat (1977-78), the painting that first captured Greig’s imagination as a schoolboy, in which the model’s private parts loom larger than the rat. While readers are likely to be less enchanted by the painting than Greig appears to be, it is nice to know that, in order to quiet the rat, it was fed half a sleeping pill, crushed and dissolved in Veuve Clicquot and served in a dog bowl.
In keeping with the Romantic ideal of the soothsayer/madman/genius, Greig’s admiration for Freud’s work occasionally makes him appear to forgive some of the monstrous behavior that he documents so well. He also overstates Freud’s originality: In contrast to many contemporaries, Freud could, indeed, paint—as proved by his portraits of David Hockney and Martin Gayford, and his superb renderings of dogs and horses. But in his cultivation of the aesthetically and morally offensive, he conformed entirely to the prevailing tastes of his day.
We might wish he had spent his talent on worthier subjects, but then he would not have been Lucian Freud.
Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.