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Lucian Freud turns 100 - by Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Dec 07, 2022

Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon Photograph by Michel Platnic

Lucian Freud would have turned 100 on December 8. Mark McGinness considers his legacy

Lucian Freud saw his paintings as largely autobiographical - they spoke for themselves.

He also claimed that there was another reason for not writing about his life – ‘it was still going on’. It is now more than thirty years since Robert Hughes described Lucian Freud as ‘the greatest living realist painter’ a view that has spread and endured.

With his death went half that claim, but his centenary brings with it a chance to look at his prolific life and prodigious work.

The second son of the second son of the legendary Sigmund, Lucian was born in Berlin on 8 December 1922. His father, Ernst, was an architect; his mother, Lucie Brasch (known as Lux) was the daughter of a prosperous grain merchant and a favourite of her mother-in-law’s. Lucian was, in turn, a favourite of his mother’s whose grey-blue gaze and slender frame he inherited and after whom he was named.

He would return this favour in the 1970s, after his father died and his mother became suicidal and withdrawn. For four or five mornings a week for fifteen years he would collect her, give her breakfast and paint her in four-hour sessions.

Lux attached the name of an archangel to each of her three sons, thus Lucian Michael. The family enjoyed a comfortable upper middle-class existence near Berlin’s Tiergarten, summers on the Baltic island of Hiddenseeand visits to his mother’s family estate near Cottbus.

In 1933, as Hitler came to power, Ernst took his family to England where they chose, like other émigrés, to settle in the verdant safety of Hampstead. Grandfather Sigmund joined the family in 1938. Four of his five sisters would perish under the Nazis. Freud rarely spoke, and never in depth, about his work, but The New Statesman’s Tom Fairfield has suggested that, “Weimar Germany produced an alert watchfulness of the world - which benefits his work - shading into a deep suspicion that has never left him.”

Two boarding schools - the liberal Dartington Hall in Devon and Bryanston in Dorset - could barely contain him. Drawing and riding consumed him. He was expelled from the latter after driving a pack of foxhounds into the school chapel during Matins. At fifteen, he produced a three-legged stone horse, which sufficiently impressed London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts but its classic approach did not appeal He then joined Sir Cedric Morris’s East Anglian School of Painting in Dedham, Essex. Morris, probably the most important early influence on the young artist, persuaded him to work with paint. According to William Feaver, Morris also taught the teenage Lucian that a portrait could be – maybe should be – revealing in a way that was almost improper.

Morris painted Freud at 19, showing him, in the words of the writer Dame Marina Warner, “with irrepressible curls, bee-sting carmine lips and eyes so blue the blue fills all the area from lid to lid. He looks like some sci-fi blind angel.” It is suggested that a stray cigarette from Freud and a friend led to the school burning down but Sir Cedric forgave him. In 1941, he impetuously joined the merchant navy as an ordinary seaman on the SS Baltrover on its voyage to Nova Scotia, making friends with other sailors by offering his services as an Indian ink tattooist. He returned (in fact, he was invalided out with tonsillitis), a few months later to Morris’s new establishment in Suffolk.

By 1943 he settled in London’s Paddington, the first of five houses he would occupy there. Several of his Irish working-class neighbours became models, especially two brothers, Billy and Charlie. Charlie was the model for his portrait ‘Boy with a White Scarf’; now held by the Art Gallery of South Australia. His first patron, Peter Watson, provided him with a studio. Some years before, drawings of himself, Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender had been published in Horizon, the influential journal edited by them and funded by Watson. He became, quite unconsciously, part of the British Neo-Romantic school, exhibiting, for the first time, in 1944 with Julian Trevelyan and Felix Kelly.

In 1945, Graham Sutherland introduced him to Francis Bacon, with whom he took to the upper Bohemian milieu of Soho. Freud was socially precocious and this would eventually lead to his estrangement from Bacon. With his looks, talent, ancestry and attitude, he skirted Princess Margaret’s glamorous set, danced with Garbo, and stayed with Ian Fleming, who suspected him of an affair with his wife, Ann, a leading literary hostess.

In 1946, he met Alberto Giacometti and Picasso in Paris. While he later said he found Picasso personally ‘poisonous’, he was taken with the artist. William Feaver has written how the young Freud was given the task of delivering Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ to a show in Brighton: “He put it on the seat opposite him in the railway carriage and looked at nothing else the entire journey.”

His first love was the much-older Lorna Wishart, the subject of the grimly vulnerable ‘Woman with Daffodil’ and ‘Woman with Tulip’. In 1947 he met her niece, Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein and married her the following year. Freud depicted Kitty in several portraits, notably “Girl with Roses,” “Girl with a Kitten” (1947) and “Girl with a White Dog” (1950-51). That marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage to Lady Caroline Blackwood. It was Caroline who quipped, “When Lucian paints a sink, you have never seen a sink look so sinkish.” He produced some tender, anguished portraits of her during their brief marriage, one of which was “Girl in Bed” In 1977 Robert Lowell, Caroline’s third husband, fled to New York intending to return to his former wife. He died in the back of a taxi on his way there, clutching ‘Girl in Bed’, Freud's portrait of their wife.

Bacon is said to be responsible for Freud’s move from stiff, small sable brushes to a softer, more generous bristle and an adoption too of Bacon’s free, daring brushwork. Robert Hughes believed his painting of Suzy Boyt, “Woman Smiling” in 1959 was “the turning point" in his work. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl agreed. As he put it, Freud “broke through to fluency, and even profundity, by concentrating his energies in paint for flesh’s sake. His great theme became the incorrigibly unhappy animal beneath the skin.”

In 1967 he and Bacon visited the great Ingres retrospective in Paris. He estimated he must have seen the National Gallery’s 1999 Ingres Portraits exhibition twenty times. Herbert Read called the early Freud ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Although he preferred to call them ‘naked portraits’, Freud had begun painting nudes in earnest in about 1965 and it would be these that essentially brought him wealth and fame (although he did not enjoy real wealth until the 1990s). Some lovers, several of his daughters, Jerry Hall and Kate Moss (both enceinte) posed for him.

Like Picasso he became a studio painter, but his was a distinctly workmanlike space. Martin Gayford's Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2010) provided an insight into his manner and method as Gayford spent forty days as the artist’s subject. The words ‘urgent', ‘subtle' and ‘concise' were written on his wall, which he would also use to dispose of unused paint. Standing - he always stood, usually half-naked, to paint; wiping his brush after every stroke on rags he would throw into a pile. One sitter referred to posing for him as “champagne on dirty floorboards”. It was so rough that in one of his self-portraits, Freud painted himself in hobnail boots (c’est tout), worn to avoid the splinters. Of this work, he confessed, "The first day I reworked it; it turned out to be my father." A multi-watt bulb, later a sky-light, above his subject was essential. Bed linen was also an abiding prop, but an essential one as Freud took so long with his subjects, they are shown sitting slumped or lying down, glassy-eyed or asleep.

Freud had a fine appreciation of the arcane world of British class distinction revelling in his friendship of dukes and bookies, grande dames and gamblers. His “Lord Goodman in His Yellow Pyjamas” (1987) is perhaps the closest his portrayals of the Great and the Good come to the hoi polloi. Goodman recalled, “He is one of the most exciting human beings I know.” The Cavendishes were early patrons and subjects. One of them, Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, the last of the Mitford sisters, recalled overhearing a visitor to Chatsworth telling her friend as they stood in front of her portrait, ‘Woman in a White Shirt’ (1957- 1958, when she was in her thirties) –“Yes, that’s the Dowager Duchess painted not long before she died.”

Freud’s portrait, “The Brigadier” – his old friend Andrew Parker-Bowles – surely owes something to Tissot’s “Frederick Gustavus Burnaby” (1870), the legendary Victorian adventurer who inspired George MacDonald Fraser’s fictional Harry Flashman. But even Freud’s portraits of toffs do not escape his hawkish eye. Parker-Bowles, a fellow horse lover and lothario, appears in full-length, the bold red stripe of the Household Cavalry running down his long, crossed legs, his be-medalled jacket open, above a full belly and below a flushed face looking down in a moment of melancholy. His impressive fully-clothed portrait, "Man in a Chair" (1985), of the titan and collector, Baron Thyssen (who estimated he had sat for 150 hours for it), seemed conventional enough until his fifth wife noticed a rat depicted in a pile of rags beside him.

In 1990, Freud met Leigh Bowery, a Melbourne-born performance artist. For as many as five days a week for two years he would pose for Freud. The result was five huge nudes. Robert Hughes saw “a huge, soft, hairless, child-faced, pierced-cheeked performance artist who might, in earlier days, have modelled Bacchuses for Rubens. Freud's paintings of this man-mountain are done in a spirit not far from amazement: his excitement in traversing Bowery's back in ‘Naked Man, Back View’ (1991-92) is so palpable that you'd think he was exploring a new landscape - as, in fact, he was.” Freud himself saw Bowery's "wonderfully buoyant bulk was an instrument I felt I could use in my painting"; "yet it's the quality of his mind that makes me want to portray him".

After Bowery’s death in 1994, Freud turned to a friend of Bowery’s - Sue Tilley, a 20-stone civil servant – who assumed the role of prime model – and attained immortality in ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ (1995), when, in 2008 it set the world record for the highest price paid at auction for a work of art by a living artist - US$33.6 million. Tilley claimed Freud got good value - pounds per dollar.

With these mountainous portraits, applied so thickly with his heavily leaded cremnitz white, he became the master of the impasto. “For me, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does” he would say.

As for Lucian Freud, the person; he was so secretive that he admitted if he had a chauffeur drop him off at a cinema, he would then take a taxi to another cinema so no one would know where he was. He could also be audacious. Sue Tilley claimed that Freud once told the King, when Prince of Wales, that a painting that he wanted was not for sale. He then sent him a picture with "not for sale" scrawled on it.

Yet, as one commentator put it, he still managed to have one foot in Soho and another in Buckingham Palace. He had painted the head of the late Queen’s Private Secretary, Robert Fellowes, who was instrumental in arranging a portrait of their monarch. A photograph of Elizabeth II sitting before Freud, confirms the oft-expressed view that he has a way of rendering even his grandest subjects vulnerable – sovereign and subject, their roles reversed. The resulting portrait was unmistakably Freud; but, even were HM’s head not adorned by her Diamond Diadem, there is still a majestic dignity about it.

He would scoff at his long-estranged brother Clement’s much-prized knighthood. He had already nonchalantly surpassed him with the Companion of Honour in 1983 and a decade later the Order of Merit (for which he painted his own self-portrait). The dreamy Tadzio from Death in Venice had become more like a smaller Samuel Beckett - half hawk/half wolf

In 2010 when interviewed by Geordie Grieg, he admitted he never took holidays. “I work every day and night. I don't do anything else. There is no point otherwise. I used to get caught up in manic activities like gambling: staying eight hours in a casino.”

He spent fortunes on horses too. When he first met his New York agent, Bill Acquavella, Freud referred him to his bookie, Alfie McLean, one of the largest bookmakers in Northern Ireland. McLean revealed that Freud owed him 2.7 million pounds. But when he became rich he gave it up, “gambling is only exciting if you don't have any money.”

He was at his most benign in the animal kingdom. His “Skewbald Mare” (2004), the rump of a Holland Park riding school favourite, is a magnificent picture. As Robert Hughes sees it, “Headless, it is none the less full of character: it does not read as a fragment or as an incomplete form.” Even more affection is devoted to his beloved whippets, Pluto and Eli. Time and again they appear - sleek, sinewy, elegant, sleeping innocently; so often beside, beneath, on top of huge, awkward, uneasy humans.

As prolific in life, as in his art, fourteen children have been publicly attributed to him but it has been suggested that he could have fathered as many as forty. Someone who knew him was quoted as saying, “Lying awake at night. It's like counting sheep, trying to figure out who his children are.'' His fecundity prompts comparisons with Augustus John, who, when walking along the streets of Chelsea, would pat a child on the head “in case it was one of mine”.

Freud’s relationship with his children was fond, although Feaver said, “They came after his art.” One daughter said that posing for him was one way of getting close to him. He was survived by two daughters from his first marriage; four children by Suzy Boyt; two sons and two daughters by Katherine McAdam, a son by Celia Paul; and two daughters by Bernadine Coverley.

For months, David Dawson, a frequent model and Freud’s assistant of twenty years, had sat, as Michael Kimmelman put it, “curled up naked on the floor beside his easel, with his dog.”

The painting was still unfinished at Freud’s death but it was never in doubt that he would paint until the every end. His was a life, and career, as intriguing, driven and dazzling in its sphere as his grandfather Sigmund’s.