Review: William Feaver’s “The Lives of Lucian Freud, the Restless Years 1922-1968”

At the conclusion of William Feaver’s exhaustive (and exhausting) biography of the first forty-six years of Lucian Freud’s life, in 1968, the British painter is pretty much on the skids. Always a slow painter and therefore producing fewer works than many of his peers, he had finally reached the stage where an occasional work sold for £1000, which, again, was less than what some of his friends earned for their paintings, produced more quickly. He was addicted to gambling (both casinos and horse racing) and owed many people from whom he had borrowed money. He had lived mostly in a series of condemned buildings, where he had had his studios. He’d been married twice, but both of those marriages ended in divorce. His portion of the royalties from his grandfather, Sigmund Freud’s works, he had assigned to the two children of his first marriage. Money was always a problem, so often he spent extended periods of time living with wealthy patrons. In short, Freud fit the stereotype of the otherworldly artist devoted to his craft but detached from the real world, especially in regard to money.

Even something as simple as staying clean appeared to perplex him. Frank Auerbach (one of Freud’s closest friends and another painter) said of Jane Willoughby, “She was so loyal…. And the laundry went to her, as far as I can tell, all his life. I don’t think he had the faintest idea what laundry was, he put it into this basket and it came back from Jane immaculately laundered. In a way, Lucian at the lowest points of his life kept some of the habits of a spoilt bourgeois upper-middle-class Berlin person.”

He was born in Berlin, a Jew, in 1922, but not observant when he grew up. The family fled to Vienna, in 1933, and then on to the United Kingdom, where he attended private schools with the elite. As early as fourteen, he showed talent for painting. Grandfather Sigmund died in 1938. Feaver describes the grandson as a bit of a wild child. By age seventeen, he was on his own in London, a part of queer society as it was called then, though Lucian was straight and already painting for magazines and friends. After the war broke out, he joined a merchant ship that took him briefly to Canada. That three-month experience gave him his first (of many) cases of the clap and kept him out of more lengthy military service. Drafted and asked if he had any objections to military service, “I said to them, ‘I’d love to be in the army. But’—which was perfectly true—one thing was very bad in the Merchant Navy and that was being pestered by men, especially at night.’” Freud was always a pretty boy.

By 1943, he was selling an occasional drawing, mostly to magazines and to publishers for book jackets. The following year, he had the first actual exhibit of his work (about 30 drawings displayed in one room). Still very young, he squandered money on prostitutes and at one time bragged that he knew by name all the prostitutes in SoHo. His own name—perhaps more than his early work—led to his friendships with writers and artists of significance: Stephen Spender, Cyril Connolly, Dylan Thomas, Giacometti, Jean-Paul Sartre, to mention only a few. In 1946, he spent time in Paris, essentially broke, followed by a period of being down and out in Greece, where he came down with the clap again. When he returned to the United Kingdom, many of his friends (and the subjects of his paintings) would be classified as dodgy, criminals. There had been brief periods of formal training as a painter but mostly he was self-taught. Feaver cites 1948 to 1958, as the period of his first recognition. During this period, he was also married to Kitty Garman, who bore him two girls.

Most of his early work had been limited to small paintings—still life and portraits. But “Interior in Paddington,” for an exhibit called “60 Paintings for ‘51” including work by many British painters, finally brought him significant fame. It was his largest work thus far, showing a man in a trench coat, smoking a cigarette, standing next to a large palm tree on a reddish rug. The subject, Harry Diamond, was described by one critic as “the pathetic defiance of the stunted man,” foreshadowing later unhappy subjects Freud painted, as his career advanced. In the early part of the decade, Freud was described as a divorced playboy, given to spontaneous liaisons with women, ignoring the formalities of courtship.

Freud’s closest painter friendship was with Francis Bacon, a relationship that lasted many years. Bacon was queer and eventually much more successful than Freud. Feaver notes that a painting Bacon made of Freud “bears no resemblance to Freud.” Freud’s relationships/acquaintances with other well-known people pile up with amazing regularity: George Orwell, Greta Garbo, Ian Fleming.

Freud’s second wife was Caroline Blackwood, of whom he observed: “She had this strange sort of Irish nose and then, because of smoking all the time, several hundred a day, her nostrils were tinged with black like the entrance to a tunnel, which I must say I loved. She smoked in her sleep. When she lit a cigarette the match always went out and I used to watch in fascination. After five, six, seven, eight, matches she just got a light, but she never ever held it downwards, it always went up and then went out.” I quote the passage because it is emblematic of much of Feaver’s biography, which relies extensively on his almost daily conversations with the painter over several decades.

The marriage to Caroline Blackwood also ended in divorce (she left him). “Marriage did not suit Freud….” He wanted, instead, the freshness of sex with women he hardly knew. In a profile of Freud for Art News in Review (1955), David Sylvester wrote, “Lucian Freud has succeeded Dylan Thomas as the legendary figure of the younger generation. It is partly his patronymic that intrigues, partly his physiognomy, but chiefly his knack of making the outrageous appear commonsensical and his refusal ever to disclose why, at any moment, he is behaving as he is and not in some other way….” And then Sylvester adds the following more damning remark: “Freud has a genius for bringing out the worst in people.”

One curious aspect of his life was his driving and the luxurious but banged-up automobiles he often owned. Always speeding, there were constant accidents; he would be fined and then lose his license, but that didn’t stop him from driving. Was he unable to judge depth? Feaver doesn’t say. And then there’s the gambling, increasingly addictive for Freud, but if he painted the elite he could pay off his loses with paintings. “I was always in debt,” he observed “Bailiffs I was always on good terms with. Winning is like sex. Better than sex.” What might his grandfather think of that observation?

And yet, the women clung to him, resulting in twelve illegitimate children. You read that correctly: twelve. He obviously had some kind of magic. Suzy Boyt (also a painter) had three children by him. Forty years later, she told him, “I’d like to thank you for the children….” Another woman had four. Freud’s mother supported a number of his children from these liaisons, and he would take some of them out to lunch as they grew older. He broke other taboos. He painted one of his daughters naked when she was fourteen or fifteen. His paintings, often bordering on the grotesque, prompted one critic to refer to his style as “obsessively detached realism.” Unfortunately, there still wasn’t sufficient income from his work to sustain his lifestyle. As William Feaver concludes his biography, “Nearing his fifties, he found himself of an age to be increasingly conscious of time dwindling and painting therefore all the more his most intimate concern.”

William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922-1968 is an extraordinary biography, especially in its extended detail. I say “extended” because of its often-gossipy form, including so much information about other people that might be considered irrelevant. Here, for example, only part of a paragraph about one of his subjects:

“That girl, marmoreal on a mattress in front of the dark fireplace, was Zoe Hicks, a daughter of Augustus John by Chiquita, a South American model. Joan Wyndham, who had been in the WAAF with her, said that she had ‘slanting gypsy eyes and the greasy hair of all the Augusta Johns.’ Freud disputed this (it was, he said, the skin that was greasy), but he was stimulated by the connection. ‘When, at sixteen, Chiquita had sat and lain for Augusta John she was excited to be pregnant and knitted garments so tiny they’d just go on a frog.’ The frog was Zoe, born in 1923, initially fostered with a policeman’s family in Islington then appropriated, briefly, by Eve Fleming, Ian Fleming’s mother, who, if she could not have a child by Augustus John—as she was eventually to do—thought the next best thing was to kidnap a live child of his. Chiquita married Michael Birkbeck, whom Freud remembered as ‘a squirearchial drunk supposedly on his uppers though he owed a Snyders; he’d go in the pub and say, “We got some Rubenses in my house,”’ and they set his coat tail alight when he went home.”

You almost need a flow chart to follow all the relationships; you certainly need to read the paragraph more than once to follow it, but what it represents, mostly, is the unbelievable amount of research that when into Feaver’s book, impressive as hell. It’s one of the lushest biographies I have ever read.

The Lives of Lucian Freud: The Restless Years, 1922-1968
William Feaver,

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.