“Dear William You are in no way to blame for this but the prospect of the book ever coming out makes me sick . . . ”. Lucian Freud’s note to his biographer, trying to halt the project that eventually turned into this mighty two-volume biography, is a surprise: it’s one of few times when the great painter seems to show compunction about aspects of his life. Or perhaps, as William Feaver notes, what really troubled Freud was that he wouldn’t be able to influence the finished product.
The artist need not have worried. As he well knew. Feaver, who met Freud in 1973 as an interview commission, became a fervent supporter of the painter’s work as well as a close confidant and friend. In this second volume, which covers the years from 1968 to Freud’s death in 2011 at the age of 88, Feaver himself becomes a significant character, always (it seems) at the artist’s elbow, inserting his own first-person recollections and opinions, quoting his own reviews and articles, retailing his own conversations and impressions. Not so much apostle and amanuensis: more like a permanent shadow.
In fact Freud trusted Feaver with this project because he was convinced Feaver had no interest in his notorious private life. Here are now in total some 1,200 pages to prove him wrong. Feaver regales us with personalities and anecdotes until the effect is almost like the “novel” Freud joked that he wanted: the wives, the women, the 14 children, the associates and models and friends and dealers and critics, became a rich cast. Detail, quotes, asides, descriptions are thickly layered on to the narrative canvas; there’s a sense that no snippet has been left aside.
Yet in a way Freud was right: Feaver is always the art critic, the work is always first and foremost. Pictures are studied in detail, the mechanics of the artist’s growing fame — the galleries, the exhibitions, the dealers, the prices — come in for careful reporting. He is also studiously — perhaps genuinely — non-judgmental, conveying stories of his subject’s casual brutalities matter-of-factly. When one model, Sophie de Stempel, gets her marching orders, Freud says: “She then sat well for a very long time. Then I did a picture and it wasn’t good and I then realised I couldn’t work from her any more. She was a bit emotional about it.” Feaver writes: “Her usefulness to him was over, her sentence served, her chagrin her affair only.”
Another story concerns Freddy, Freud’s son with his lover Jacquetta Eliot. She describes her relationship with Freud as obsessive and turbulent: “fighting like a mad cat”, he would “tear into me”. Yet even when demanding she give him a child he chillingly said of his other women and their multiple offspring: “Nothing to do with me that they’re having children.”
Later, Jacquetta asked Freud to write their son a letter to reassure him he had been wanted. After their break-up, Freud asked for it back.
The 1970s and 80s saw Freud at his most flamboyant. The constant parade of models — new lovers, almost all — and his nocturnal working habits, the enormous Bentley in which he tore around London, the obsessive gambling. Freud in these years was perpetually broke, even as the prices of his pictures started to climb. He was banned from the racetracks for debts to bookies. With aristocratic subjects such as the Duke of Devonshire or Andrew Parker Bowles — as a childhood immigrant who always felt an outsider, Freud loved a toff — he would often ask for small loans.
Yet by the end of the 1980s Freud’s prices were so high that his dealer James Kirkman — of whom Freud demanded immediate payment, as soon as a work was finished rather than (as was custom) when it was sold — found them impossible to meet, especially at the art market crash of 1990.
In fact he wasn’t entirely feckless about money. A share of royalties from his grandfather Sigmund Freud’s writings found its way into a trust for the children. At his death, Freud left £95m.
During these years Freud’s important relationships with other painters included Frank Auerbach, a valued critic as well as dear pal, and Francis Bacon, though their once close bond curdled before the latter’s death in 1992. Feaver, who by then spoke to Freud on the phone most days and was regularly summoned to survey work in progress, writes with insight about the making of the most famous canvases. He documents the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and the furious press reaction. Then he plumbs the gossip about the disastrous portrait of a breastfeeding Jerry Hall (Freud scratched her face out, replacing it with that of his close companion David Dawkins to create a naked breastfeeding man). “Obviously Jagger went crazy,” said Freud’s perplexed New York dealer William Acquavella. “How can I ever sell the thing? The first person who saw it bought it.”
As Feaver prepared to curate the great 2000 retrospective of Freud’s work at Tate Britain, the painter’s mood became more sombre — worrying about his artistic reputation, fretting (unusually) about children acknowledged and unacknowledged. A 1998 painting of one of his favourites, Ali Boyt, carried the title “The Painter’s Son, Ali”, a rare affirmation; Bella and Esther Freud brokered contacts with some of their father’s other children.
Reputationally however, the Tate show’s lack of distinguished international partners revealed that Freud’s standing around the world was then not all he wished. But fame, significantly the subtitle of this volume, ballooned in the artist’s final decade. Despite illnesses, depression and finally being disqualified for dangerous driving, the urge to work was unabated. According to David Dawson, Freud would set off to fashionable London restaurants — the Wolseley, Moro — late at night in search of model recruits, and there still were a few regular girls. Friends kept him going, particularly the devoted Dawson.
These final years are a catalogue of shows, which Freud, now suffering from cancer, is usually too frail to attend, of deals and parties and chat — but the book slows up considerably. It’s the only point at which its huge bulk feels onerous. But if its length often seems indulgent, it’s surely appropriate to its expansive, brilliant subject and his lust for life. And if Feaver is sometimes too forgiving of Freud’s failings, in this magnificent book he is also adept at conveying the painter’s infectious joie de vivre.
One model, a nurse called Louise Liddell, was once asked by a journalist if Freud wasn’t a monster. “God yes. He’s an absolute beast. You arrive at the studio and get plied with champagne. He’s a great cook and usually prepares something lovely to eat in the break, like lobster or game. I mean, what a monster. To be with him is like putting your fingers into an electric socket.”
The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968-2011, by William Feaver, Bloomsbury, RRP£35, 592 pages
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
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