William Feaver tells us that when he first met Lucian Freud, in 1973, he told him he had no interest in his private life, just his work. That would be an odd thing to say to an artist who believed his work was “entirely about myself and my surroundings.” But plainly Feaver came around, way around, enough to produce The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922-1968, the first of two volumes. With Freud’s approval, Feaver, former art critic for the British weekly The Observer, spent decades recording their conversations, which now supply his book with so many of Freud’s first-person recollections that it reads like a hybrid biography-memoir, their voices blending like the layered chatter in an old Robert Altman movie and the story advancing on great swells of gossip spiked with vintage British slang. (Be sure to brush up “spiv,” “debby women,” and “skitso prenick.”)
To be sure, the gossip is choice. Amid walk-ons by Picasso, Giacometti, and Ian Fleming, Freud charms and evades Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden, rubs shoulders with Princess Margaret, briefly squires Greta Garbo, and beds Sonia Orwell and Simone de Beauvoir. This first volume delivers the artist into his mid-40s, by then producing the very tactile portraits and nudes—pigment heavily loaded onto a fat hog’s-hair brush, flesh coursing across the canvas in thick smears—that would make him one of the most potent realists of his generation, with suitably stupendous auction prices.