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.
In life, Freud could be languidly elusive about himself, his own Artful Dodger, and in Feaver’s 600-plus pages he somehow manages to stay that way. The second of three brothers, Freud was born on December 8, 1922, into a comfortable Jewish household in Berlin. His wolfishly handsome father, Ernst, an architect, was the youngest son of none other than Sigmund Freud. His mother, Lucie, was a famous beauty schooled in the classics whose devotion Lucian spent a lifetime dodging. (He tells us, oddly: “It was being forgiven I didn’t like.”) Once the Nazis came to power, in 1933, Ernst sped the family to London, where the ailing Sigmund joined them five years later. Soon he was dead, leaving his ample publishing royalties to his grandchildren, cash that helped sustain young Lucian in the many years when his art did not.
Even at his first English school, which didn’t require classroom attendance, Freud resisted formal education. But at 16, having discovered drawing, he fetched up more happily at a free-form art academy founded by the painter Cedric Morris and his companion, Arthur Lett-Haines. After a few years there and a brief stint in the merchant marine, Freud returned to wartime London and a life of haute-bourgeois bohemianism and shabby-chic cafés.
Amid walk-ons by Picasso and Ian Fleming, Freud rubs shoulders with Princess Margaret and beds Simone de Beauvoir.
Lithe, handsome, and unfazed that so many of his friends and mentors were queer—his own uncle assumed he must be, too—Freud became an “It boy” for admirers of both sexes. Though he insists to Feaver he bedded just one other male, it was, remarkably, Michael Wishart, whose mother, Lorna, nearly 12 years Freud’s senior and married, had been Freud’s first serious lover. For good measure Michael would later wed Anne Dunn, mother of two of Freud’s dozen or so illegitimate children. In Feaver’s book, we don’t see much of the children. Then again, neither did Freud, though Dunn apparently bears him no ill will. She tells Feaver: “One was clipped on to a dynamo.”
The dynamo whipped through two marriages. The first, in 1948, was to Kitty Epstein. Daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, she bore Freud’s only legitimate children, Annie and Annabel. It’s the waifish, very wide-eyed Kitty we see in some of Freud’s first paintings of consequence, executed in his fraught early manner, all taut lines and painstaking detail indebted to Dürer, Van Eyck, and Ingres, plus the antsier corners of German Expressionism.
Away from his easel Freud took countless lovers, including the fabulously wealthy Marie-Laure de Noailles, whose immense jewels, he recalls, were “so heavy on her neck they made bruises.” In time he became obsessed with the saucer-eyed Lady Caroline Blackwood, of the Guinness-brewery fortune. (On meeting her the poet John Betjeman exclaims: “What big eyes you’ve got. Doesn’t it hurt?”) Thus smitten, Freud left Kitty and in 1953 wed Caroline. On their honeymoon he disappeared for a while with another woman. After four years of this sort of thing Caroline fled, later to marry the poet Robert Lowell. Freud shrugs. “I wasn’t suited to being with someone really.”
The Dodgy End
However much he moved among the upper crust, it served Freud’s raffish self-image to mix regularly in lower circles. His chronic gambling debts kept him in proximity to London’s criminal underworld. A frequent sidekick was Charlie Lumley, a young burglar and roughhouse who once threw a man down a flight of stairs so Freud could move in on his girlfriend. Freud explains: “I always felt that extreme social change gave me what traveling gives other people.” But even while living in squalid row houses and council flats, he somehow always drove, and sometimes crashed, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.
Feaver’s treatment of Freud isn’t hagiographic, but weirdly hands-off. Even when he reports Freud’s worst behavior, it’s typically without so much as a cocked eyebrow, not even when Freud bangs a woman’s head into a table during an argument. Freud himself tells Feaver: “Sometimes I think you make me more moral than I am, less amoral.” He would know. But we see enough of him to realize that the critic Kenneth Tynan was on to something when he called Freud “a reptile.”
Even while living in squalid row houses, Freud somehow always drove, and sometimes crashed, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys.
The tensile strength and sheer strangeness of Freud’s anxious, big-eyed portraits of the late 1940s and early 1950s brought him some success. But had he stayed on that road, we’d look back on him now as the thinking man’s Walter Keane. That he did not owes much to his intense friendship with Francis Bacon, whose ferocious work would lead Freud to doubt his own. He would eventually own nine Bacons, including Two Figures, a frenzied sexual wrestling match—Bacon called it “The Buggers”—that Freud hung at the foot of his own bed. It was the kind of thing he could never do himself—too bleak, too furious—but it helped him to loosen his brush and put aside the fine lines of Ingres for the pulsing slapdash of Frans Hals, opening the way to the magma flows of pigment in his mature work.
By the late 1960s, as Feaver’s book ends, Freud is fluent in his earnest new brushwork but out of step with an art world more attuned to the ironies of Pop. Nearing 50, he knows time is fleeting. We know his best work is still to come. He may be a reptile, but—hélas!—a very gifted one. And his fat brush is cocked and loaded.
Richard Lacayo is the former art critic for Time. He is currently at work on a book for Simon & Schuster on six artists in old age, from Titian to Nevelson