The artist Lucian Freud seems to be everywhere. To mark the centenary of his birth this past December, there have been at least seven exhibitions of his work in London alone, including a landmark show currently running at the National Gallery, as well as several handsome coffee-table books and, most recently, a book of his letters.
I can’t help but wonder what my mother, the writer Lady Caroline Blackwood, would make of all the fuss. After all, it is her enormous blue eyes gazing forlornly out of the canvases of three portraits by Freud at the National show; his love letters to her written in childish handwriting that are included in the new book; and reproductions of his studies of her that appear in catalogues all over the world.
The portraits, at first thought unflattering and aggressive, are now described in glowing terms as being among the artist’s most tender and beautiful. I do wish she were alive today, although I think I already know what she would say.
My mother first met Lucian in 1949 when she was an 18-year-old debutante in London; he was married but separated from his first wife. A grandson of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund, who had immigrated with his family to England from Vienna, Lucian was seductive, good-looking, and caustically funny. The attraction between the two was immediate and would prove to have devastating consequences.
For my mother, Lucian offered an enticing way out of the life that she seemed destined for. The eldest child of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and his indomitable wife, Maureen Guinness, Caroline had been born to marry and marry well. For Lucian, my mother represented either an entrée into upper-class society or a way to get back at a class system that he knew would never embrace him. It was probably a combination of both.
Born in London, Caroline and her younger brother and sister were raised mainly in Northern Ireland at Clandeboye, the Dufferin house and estate. At the outbreak of World War II, her father went to serve in Burma. Reported missing, he never returned. Maureen was left a widow and the three children were left without a father. While their brother was sent to be educated at Eton, the girls attended the local boys’ school, Rockport Preparatory, in Ireland and were eventually sent to be “finished” in Switzerland. Her lack of a decent education would be a source of irritation throughout the rest of her life. If I ever complained about school, my mother would sarcastically remind me that “in Switzerland, we learned only invaluable life skills such as flower arranging and how to exit a car without showing one’s knickers.”
When she met Lucian, at a party given by Anne Fleming (then wife of Esmond Harmsworth, second Viscount Rothermere and later the widow of James Bond creator Ian), it was as if a window into an entirely unknown and exotic world had been opened. The contrast between the intense, darkly handsome young painter and the “eligible” but suffocatingly boring heirs to the English aristocracy my mother seemed destined to marry could not have been sharper. To the horror of my grandmother, and the glee of her gossipy society friends, Caroline moved into Lucian’s studio in Paddington before the couple eloped to Paris in 1952. She had just turned 21.
Lucian was seductive, good-looking, and caustically funny. The attraction between the two was immediate and would prove to have devastating consequences.
Lucian was a little-known, struggling artist, and my mother had been disinherited by her family, so money was tight for the young couple. They lived at the cheap Hotel La Louisiane above the Buci market, relying on local bistros to keep them in wine and food in return for a drawing by the charming young artist.
Strikingly beautiful with huge eyes, my mother became the new face of his paintings. During their year-long stay at the hotel, my mother posed for at least three portraits by Freud and many unfinished studies. Sitting for Lucian, who worked meticulously and painfully slowly, was a process my mother found incredibly tedious. She later would joke that “critics said that he paints the anguish of our age—but (Lucien) really paints the anguish of his sitter.”
Her suffering was compounded not only by Lucian’s inability to save money—any proceeds from the sale of his work rarely made it back from a spree at the betting shop—but also by his constant womanizing. When I would ask her about their marriage and why she refused to see or talk to him, she would tell me how sadistically cruel he was: “In Paris, I was incredibly lonely—cut off from my family and friends. I became used to being under his intense and brutal scrutiny, bored stiff while he painted me for hours at a time. But when we would finally finish for the day and escape for dinner, he would stare intensely at every other pretty girl in the room and completely ignore me. I think the term ‘roving eye’ was invented to describe him.”
Their time in Paris wasn’t without adventure. One morning Lucian excitedly informed Caroline that they had received an invitation to visit Picasso at his studio on the Rue des Grands Augustins. Lucian was so nervous, he was shaking. She later described Picasso as having the “largest and most disturbing eyes” she had ever seen. When the young couple arrived at his studio, he couldn’t keep those eyes off her and immediately invited her upstairs to see his doves. Lucian, evidently pleased the great master had taken such a liking to his young girlfriend, encouraged her to go while he waited downstairs.
Once they were upstairs, Picasso forgot all about the doves and insisted on painting her nails. He proceeded to paint an exquisite little picture on each nail before making a violent but clumsy pass at her. After the encounter, she said, “The experience was incredibly unnerving but when I told Lucian how frightened I had been he couldn’t have cared less. He was more concerned about my nails and wouldn’t allow me to wash my hands for weeks.”
She later would joke that great art was meant to “convey the suffering of the artist, but Lucian’s portraits conveyed only the suffering of his sitter.”
A year and several portraits later, the pair returned to London. Lucian’s divorce had finally come through, and they married in a small civil ceremony at the Chelsea Register Office in 1953. My grandmother, who had envisioned a glamorous wedding to a duke or at least an earl for her beautiful daughter, did not attend.
The newlyweds moved into an apartment on Dean Street, where they lived what my mum would later describe as “a very Soho bohemian life.” Later she would write, “Bohemian life, as it once existed in Soho in postwar London, has recently become a legend. As a result it is often romanticized. Younger artists who never experienced it view it with the odd nostalgia one can sometimes feel for periods one has never known. The intellectuals, the writers, the painters such as Francis Bacon, who wildly gathered every night to drink too much in the bars and clubs of Soho certainly made an interesting, volatile group. But there was a darker side to all the flamboyant, reckless popping of their champagne corks. Life in Soho, at that time, was like a party that never ended.”
However, her marriage to Lucian did end less than a year later. His cruelty, gambling, and humiliating behavior with other women sent her running back into the arms of her mother, who was only too thrilled to help her escape to New York.
Lucian’s last painting of my mother, entitled Girl by the Sea, was completed just before she fled. In the portrait, she appears bedraggled, diminished, and miserable. Lucian was said to be so devastated that his friends, including Francis Bacon, feared he would take his own life. He vowed he would never marry again.
Many years later, when I was about 18, I attended a dinner party in London. Lucian was sitting across the table from me. He stared at me intensely throughout the entire meal, but I had the feeling he wasn’t looking at me. He was searching for someone else.
A week later I received an invitation to lunch at his club in Mayfair. Flattered and intrigued, I accepted. I didn’t tell my mum, as I knew she would object.
Lucian could not have been more solicitous and charming. Over an extravagant meal of hard-boiled eggs stuffed with caviar, grilled Dover sole, and flutes of champagne, he regaled me with funny anecdotes and seemed genuinely interested in everything I had to say. At the end of lunch, he looked at me with his intense dark eyes and in his soft, German-accented voice whispered, “I would like to work from you.”
Lucian was said to be so devastated that his friends, including Francis Bacon, feared he would take his own life. He vowed he would never marry again.
I knew I should take this as a huge compliment. Lucian was one of the most important artists alive, and he was famously picky about whom he would ask to sit for him. But all I felt was uneasy. There was something cold and dangerous about him, and I knew he wasn’t interested in me at all. He was trying to find a vestige of the woman he had once loved and the only woman who had managed to hurt him.
A couple of nights later, I had supper with my mum. I wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject of my unsettling lunch, but after a couple of drinks I felt emboldened. “So, guess who I had lunch with and who wants to paint me?”
She instantly froze, her huge eyes flashed with a rage I had never seen before. When she finally spoke she said, “I forbid you to go anywhere near that man. He will fuck you just like he fucks everyone who has the misfortune to sit for him. But, don’t you see, he isn’t interested in you at all? He doesn’t want to paint you—he doesn’t even want to fuck you. He just wants to use you to get back at me.”
I should have been insulted, but I knew she was right. Whatever had happened between my mother and Lucian all those years ago would forever be between them. I had no place there, and I certainly didn’t want to be a part of whatever twisted game Lucian was playing now. The subject was never broached again.
Today, when I look at the violent nudes of Lucian’s young daughters, the grotesque images of pudgy men, every inch of their mottled flesh exposed, and then at the softer, far gentler portraits of my mother, her fragile likeness immortalized in oil, I know she would be relieved. She will always be the one who got away. And perhaps she helped me get away, too.
Ivana Lowell is a writer whose memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?, is being adapted as a television series