The first half of this biography was published last year. It told a compulsive tale. As a painter, Lucian Freud laid the body bare to predatory inspection. Yet he guarded his privacy with obsessive insistence.
Yet thanks to diligent note-taking across almost four decades by the art critic William Feaver, his friend and faithful scribe, we were being invited, like punters inspecting the goods at some grand house-contents sale, to poke about in his defiantly unconventional, unscrupulously promiscuous, doggedly ambitious and tenaciously artistic life. What could be more riveting?
I don’t want to suggest that this biography is like a rummage through the metaphorical knicker drawer. It is too lofty for that — and besides there are better contenders for such comparisons: try Geordie Greig’s unabashedly gossip-mongering Breakfast with Lucian, for instance.
Yet the first part of Feaver’s account, with its sweeping great chunks of reported speech, of reminiscence, anecdote and opinion, had more of the feel of a picaresque novel than would normally be expected of a biographical work. This lent it an air of immediacy and I, for one, was eager to press on to the second part of the tale. Freud may have presented a tantalizing unknowable figure in his lifetime, but surely after reading two chunky volumes I would have got to the bottom of his character?
How wrong. The more I read, the less I felt I knew about this man.
The Dramas of Palette and Paint
It is 1968 when this second half of the biography begins. Freud is in his mid-forties. With his two marriages behind him, he is getting used to being the older man, involving himself with women who are, increasingly, about the age of his children — although I rather lost track of their ages, or indeed, how many of these children there are. This is not because there may be (as gossip speculates) as many as 40, but because the author keeps everyone, except his main subject, to the fringes. Freud, even from beyond the grave, is firmly in control.
The needle-sharp scrutiny of Freud’s early style has been abandoned. His paint is thick, bold and somber. His nudes feel almost raw. The artistic fame that they bring him is growing fast. Yet he is becoming increasingly conscious that time is running out, Feaver suggests, and the 40 or so years of studio life that remain to him are to prove “extraordinarily productive”.
This news will disappoint readers who delighted in the Tatler-esque gossip of the first volume. The sorts of stories that involve peers of the realm, parrots and Dom Pérignon give way to the dramas of palette and paint (although a Welsh landowner’s daughter with a dead porpoise does feature).
A volume that kicks off with glimpses of life in a Cornish mansion, home to the tempestuous Jacquetta Eliot, the impossibly beautiful wife of the 10th Earl of St. Germans, who for 50 pages or so storms in and out of Freud’s bed, puts its focus increasingly on life in the studio as it progresses. Scattered morsels of tittle-tattle — the 11th Duke of Devonshire’s proclivity for paid sex, an all-ducal dinner party at Annabel’s — cede to such minutiae as the fact that Freud’s “staple colour is Naples yellow (pale)”.
A volume that kicks off with glimpses of life in a Cornish mansion, home to the tempestuous Jacquetta Eliot, who for 50 pages or so storms in and out of Freud’s bed, puts its focus increasingly on life in the studio.
This volume will appeal to those readers more fascinated by the artistic than the social life; who want a behind-the-scenes account of Freud’s succession of gallerists (and his rows and fallings-out with them), of the critical opinions of his work (and why they were wrong), of the staging of progressively more significant exhibitions.
A sequence of canvases marks its course. There are the pictures of his mother, whom, right up until the mid-1980s, he picked up and took to his studio to sit for him four or five days a week; the atypical After Watteau in which he gathered several of the women in his life; portraits of everyone from the maverick Leigh Bowery to the military Andrew Parker Bowles, to the Queen — a painterly zenith for an artist who made something of a specialism of subjecting high-society females to his unflinchingly frank appraisal.
However, don’t expect to glimpse much of his models’ experience or emotions. (For that you will have to read Celia Paul’s touching memoir of her decade-long relationship with Freud, published last year.) Feaver devotes more words to describing Freud’s painterly treatment of the Paisley patterns on his mother’s frock than he does to describing his feelings about her growing dementia. One day, we learn, “the door was open and she wandered off down the road and I had to run after her and get her back. Naturally I was more aware of observing than of her state,” Freud remarked.
“Mum said that he never hugged us, never picked us up when we were children. She said he would just look at us. Very intently,” one of his daughters, Jane McAdam, remembers. Freud, when he heard this, just shrugged. “My world is fairly floorboardish,” as he put it. The appearance of wooden planks and the people who sprawled on them were on a par.
Portraits of everyone from the maverick Leigh Bowery to the military Andrew Parker Bowles, to the Queen.
This biography deals with a grandson of the founding father of psychoanalysis. It is about a painter who famously conjured up a disconcerting aura of mental tension in his pictures. “It’s what’s inside their head that’s so important to me,” he said of his sitters. “It was me, the whole personality that interested him,” declares one of his models, the now famous “Big Sue” whom in Benefits Supervisor Resting (1994) he painted slumped on a sofa, her folds of fat bulging like the stuffing that extrudes from split seams. “He asked my mum and dad to the studio and said to them, ‘Had to see where this extraordinary creature came from.’ ”
Yet this fascinated scrutiny is done through a one-way mirror. You won’t find out much of what Freud’s sitters thought of him. Nor is Feaver prepared to unsettle his subject with searching questions. Plenty of self-justifications are offered: why he didn’t honor a gambling debt ($26,000 he owed Ladbrokes), why he accepted an Order of Merit, and a beef with his erstwhile friend Francis Bacon runs obsessively on (even after Bacon dies, he kept picking at the scab). Yet Freud is never put on the couch. So although you will sometimes be offered behind-the-scenes glimpses — I particularly liked something as simple as the description of what it was like to walk up the stairs on your way to a sitting — more often you will be left with an overflow of never posed and so never answered questions.
Perhaps this reticence is the price Feaver had to pay for the trust that he secured. Maybe without it we wouldn’t have got this: a book that Freud apparently hoped would be “the first funny art book”. Not that you will find that much to make you laugh, bar the occasional story (the time he dressed up as a nun so that he could see a dying friend in a hospital that wouldn’t otherwise allow visitors) or wonderfully sharp insight (“Considering that I’m completely selfish and only do what I want to do, what am I doing forgetting what I want to do?” he wonders in old age).
There is plenty to attest to the wonderfully attractive sides of Freud’s character. Laughter, mimicry, vivacity, loyalty (most especially to his fellow painter Frank Auerbach) and financial generosity were strong suits. “To be with him,” one model says, “is like putting your fingers into an electric socket. You come out spiritually uplifted. He’s exciting company.” There is also plenty to attest that he was cold, selfish, acerbic, bullying, willfully disingenuous and cruel.
“I have an idea which is that I’ve left a lot of things unsaid in order to have ideas in painting,” Freud declared in old age. His canvases are his real legacy. His daughter Esther, remembering the time when, as a 17-year-old, she was taken by her father to Italy (“the only time in my life that I’ve ever known him to go on holiday”) puts her finger on it: “I remember at one point feeling how naked my father seemed without his work.” Such a simple observation, yet somehow it strips Freud bare. Without his painting, he was a hermit crab gouged from its shell.
Freud ruled like an emperor inside the artistic fortress that he created. But reading this book I found myself unexpectedly discomforted. The more that I read, the more the unsaid seemed to make its presence felt. It was increasingly disconcerting. Quite possibly it was because this biography has been published in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Me Too movement. So many women seemed to have been led to sacrifice on the high altar of his talent. I tapped into an aura of creepy complicity. And, having finally got to the end of 1,000 pages, I suspect it will not prove the definitive biography. There’s more to come.