An insider's account—the first of its kind—of the thoroughly unconventional life of one of the twentieth century's most shockingly original painters
Lucian Freud's paintings are instantly recognizable: often shocking and disturbing, his portraits convey a profound yet compelling sense of discomfort. Freud was twice married and the father of at least a dozen children, and his numerous relationships with women were the subject of much gossip—but the man himself remained a mystery. An intensely private individual (during his lifetime he prevented two planned biographies from being published), Freud's life, as well as his art, invites questions that have had no answer—until now.
In Breakfast with Lucian, Geordie Greig, one of a few close friends who regularly had breakfast with the painter during the last years of his life, tells an insider's account—accessible, engaging, revealing—of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating, enigmatic, and controversial artists. Greig, who has studied his subject's work at length, unravels the tangled thread of a life lived on Freud's own uncompromising terms. Based on private conversations in which Freud held forth on everything from first love to gambling debts to the paintings of Velázquez, and informed by interviews with friends, lovers, and some of the artist's children who have never before spoken publicly about their relationships with the painter, this is a deeply personal memoir that is illuminated by a keen appreciation of Freud's art. Fresh, funny, and ultimately profound, Breakfast with Lucian is an essential portrait—one worthy of one of the greatest painters of our time.
An NPR Best Book of 2013
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About the Author
Geordie Greig is the editor of the London Evening Standard, and has interviewed most major twentieth-century artists over the last thirty years. He was the American correspondent for The Sunday Times for five years before becoming its literary editor. He was also editor of Tatler magazine for ten years before being appointed to edit London's main newspaper in 2009. He is married to a Texan and has a son and twin daughters. They live in Notting Hill.
Read an Excerpt
Breakfast with Lucian
The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain's Great Modern Painter
By Geordie Greig
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Geordie Greig
All rights reserved.
Scruffy, slightly stooped and silent, the two men looked like characters arriving for a dress rehearsal of Waiting for Godot. Breakfast with Lucian invariably began the same way, with the Grand Old Man of British art and his younger assistant, David Dawson, walking the few doors down from the painter's home in Kensington Church Street in Notting Hill to Clarke's restaurant. Lucian often wore a paint-flecked, grey cashmere overcoat, and black lace-up workmen's boots, which gave him a sartorial edginess. The coat was from Issey Miyake, and his unironed white shirt was crumpled but expensive.
Lucian entered Clarke's before the curtain went up. He and David would slip through the delicatessen next door to the restaurant, via a side passage into the empty dining room. The shop does a brisk trade in almond croissants, pains au chocolat, organic cheeses, quiches, lemon tarts, sausage rolls and breads, but breakfast next door was a privilege that Sally Clarke – the eponymous owner of the restaurant and one of Lucian's last sitters – only ever granted to him. In effect, it became Lucian's private salon for himself and his guests.
It is a small upmarket restaurant that has been a fixture in Kensington for more than a quarter of a century. Its customers often remarked that it felt more like going to a dinner party than a restaurant, as for most of that time Sally Clarke offered no menu choice, only what she had decided to cook that day. It has relaxed that distinction in recent years to give a choice of three or four dishes every day, always what is freshest on the market. It is a discreet and popular venue for top brass from the BBC, and people like Bryan Ferry, Salman Rushdie and Dame Maggie Smith. When the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to the UK in June 2012 after a twenty-four-year exile, it was where she spent her one lunch in London, on her sixty-seventh birthday. Cashmered English ladies of a certain age enjoy its quiet atmosphere. A card on the table indicates that mobile phones are forbidden. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are customers. It is situated among estate agents and specialist antique shops, and is easily missable; but once through its wood and glass doors, its superiority over almost every other restaurant in the area is evident.
Lucian had first started going to the tiny front café in Clarke's in 1989 with Leigh Bowery, the flamboyant Australian performance artist whose pierced cheeks and blond wig or bald pate made Lucian fade into anonymity beside him. He became a sitter for Lucian and was paid to pose naked. Lucian loved the starched white tablecloths, the pretty girls in their chef's uniforms, the light airy atmosphere and bright arrangements of flowers on the bar counter, the delicious food and, of course, his friendship with Sally. His shabby-chic style and hint of dishevelment masked a man of discernment and taste. Nothing was unplanned. Breakfast at Clarke's was precious downtime for him. He had a never-ending work schedule, a round-the-clock regime, or 'round the cock', as one wag put it, since his libido never appeared to fade. Occasionally, he would mock-grab the thigh of one of his female guests, or the waitresses, or Sally, who would laugh. Somehow he carried off a gesture that might have seemed boorish or ill-judged in others. It was meant playfully, almost comically, and came with affection, originating from an era before political correctness. It was also evidence of a man who grabbed life; there were no rules, certainly not in playfulness. He was the man who got away with everything. But then, as his grandfather Sigmund once said, 'there is no such thing as a joke'.
Lucian and David walked to Clarke's for breakfast most days, and for almost ten years, on and off, usually on Saturdays, I was part of a small cast of invited friends, although we were kept separate. He juggled past lovers and new ones, art dealers, his children, framers and friends. The range was wide: from a beautiful girl dying of cancer who worked for the Queen to a former heroin addict who had been to jail, his wine merchant, favourite auctioneer, bookmaker or the painter Frank Auerbach, his oldest friend. Freud was a great divider. He allowed few of us to see any of the others. The central crossroads in his later life were his painting studio and Clarke's. Everyone important to him in his final years met there.
Breakfast with Lucian became part of my weekend, although often it was arranged on the spur of the moment. He hated being pinned down, having to see anybody. My visits there had started with Lucian randomly calling to invite me, but in his last few years it became more of a routine and in the early mornings I would text David, who would reply on Lucian's behalf: 'Clarke's in twenty minutes' or 'At Clarke's, come now'. Because he hated intrusion, Lucian gave his telephone number to almost nobody apart from a few of his children, his art dealer, his lawyer, and, of course, David, who would drive from his own home up Ladbroke Grove and let himself into the Kensington Church Street house with the one spare key. Lucian's black engagement diary lay open on the eighteenth-century mahogany desk in the grey linoleum-floored dining room. Written in his childlike script were the names of those he was seeing that day, economically annotated ('Frank 9 Clarke's', 'Jane 8.45'), as well as the name of a model who might be sitting for him later. David would gently rouse Lucian from bed on the second floor, wait until he had taken his bath and then walk with him down the street to Clarke's.
David worked for Lucian for twenty years; they spent more time with each other than anyone else in their lives. They had both grown to appreciate each other's sense and sensibility, and were utterly at ease. David first met Lucian when he worked for his then art dealer James Kirkman, who sent him round to help with some tasks. David organised all the daily necessities, from getting wads of cash from the bank (Lucian loved cash; when he died, wads of cash were inside two eighteenth-century mahogany wine coolers in his upstairs drawing room) to buying his Solpadeine, the painkillers he took addictively to maintain his energy and ease away any aches or pains. But David's role as studio organiser, as someone who could think ahead about every detail to do with Lucian's work, was the crucial one: at this he was 'really, really good', as Lucian would often say, the Rs slightly rolled and Germanic. They shared the same sense of humour, and David knew Lucian's quirks and work requirements completely.
Born in 1960, David had trained as a painter at the Royal College of Art and was the one student in his graduate year whose work the London Evening Standard 's art critic Brian Sewell genuinely admired. An exact contemporary of Tracey Emin, he is an artist in his own right, as well as having been Lucian's model and constant companion for two decades. Besides some Auerbachs, his etching Talbot Road had been one of the very few pictures hanging in Lucian's studio in Holland Park.
For breakfast at Clarke's I would park nearby and then walk past the private car park where Lucian's brown Bentley had its own bay. As I neared, I could see David and Lucian silhouetted against the rear window. They would sit in the same chairs at the same circular table, the day's newspapers fetched by David from a shop on Kensington Church Street. All the broadsheets, plus the Daily Mail, would be spread out. Lucian would order a pot of Earl Grey, which he poured before it had time to brew and would swamp with milk, while David had a cappuccino. Over the years Lucian's breakfast varied from pains au raisin to porridge to scrambled egg and toast, Sally and David always wanting to make sure he ate sufficiently and healthily, as he had a very sweet tooth. Lucian would often take a bar of home-made nougat from the shop's shelves as he walked in, sometimes jokingly slipping it into his pocket like a shoplifter. With a murderously sharp black-handled kitchen knife, he would slice it bit by bit, offering up slivers.
In the last three years of his life I drove to the restaurant from Holland Park, where I lived on the ground floor of the building in which he had a top-floor studio. The only unspoken rule was never to be late. Clarke's was neutral territory for him, a respite from the bedroom or the studio. It was where he relaxed. Sometimes my young children, Jasper, Monica and Octavia, would join us for cheese straws and chocolate-chip biscuits, showing him what they were doing with their PlayStations or my iPad. Lucian did his only digital drawings there, for them, both of horses, one on an iPad and the other on an iPhone. He was enchanting with the children, amused when Jasper told him he had nice knees – 'One of the finest parts of me' – and laughed when Jasper told him he thought that the initials 'OM' after Lucian's name stood for Old Man, not Order of Merit. Lucian would mock-drum on the table with a spoon or his clenched fist, pretend to take cherries out of the children's ears, sing ditties or recite poems by Walter de la Mare or Rudyard Kipling. He was always delighted to talk and tease, and their interaction was often very moving.
In that quiet space, Lucian's conversation ranged from dating Greta Garbo to the best way to land a punch without breaking your thumb, to how he had popped in to 10 Downing Street to see Gordon Brown, or had been to a nightclub with Kate Moss, or had sold a picture for an eye-watering sum. He was witty, caustic and curious. Recitations of Goethe, Noël Coward, Eliot and Yeats tumbled out. It was somehow always a performance and never a declamation, whether it was Nat King Cole's 'There's Gotta Be Some Changes Made' or nineteenth-century French verse. He could recall spats in the 1940s with Ian Fleming, who believed Lucian was cuckolding him ('completely untrue, actually'), how Stephen Spender had stolen some drawings, or how Jacob Rothschild had taken him to the ballet at Covent Garden the previous night. Stories might go back to his twenties, perhaps recounting his time as a film extra in George Formby's musical comedy Much Too Shy. (Lucian played a young painter at the 'School of Modern Art', while Formby was an accident-prone handyman who paints publicity posters for his local cinema. Asked by the manager to draw sexy women in silks and satins in his pictures, Formby enrols at the art school, being too shy to have anyone he knows model for him. 'One day when I'm a famous painter they will sell like hot cakes,' he boasts to his boy assistant, Jimmy. 'I'd rather have hot cakes,' replies Jimmy.)
Painters were often discussed, from Degas (whom he admired) to Raphael (who he felt never became truly great). Top of his list were Rembrandt and Velázquez. He would tell you how Chardin, in 1735, had painted 'the most beautiful ear in art' in a picture called The Young Schoolmistress. Conversation was chatty and informal and gossipy and sometimes profound. He might suddenly say how he hated the brightly coloured cupcakes in the fancy bakery that had opened a few doors down, or talk about his latest painting, or which of Flaubert's letters he especially liked. He was never boastful about what he was doing or who he had known; both were spectacular and remarkable. He talked fondly of his time hovering in dark streets with criminals in Paddington, West London, and riding horses in the 1950s in Dorset, and more recently near Wormwood Scrubs prison in the noughties. His grandfather Sigmund was recollected with warmth.
Lucian was scornful of any psychobabble link between him and Sigmund. 'I just never think like that,' he told me, believing very simply that too much analysis led to paralysis.
GG: 'Did your grandfather have any of your pictures?'
LF: 'Yes, I gave him some things but my aunt Anna destroyed them.'
LF: 'I think because he liked them. But when I tried to borrow them back it was impossible. I was friendly with a maid in his house who told me that my aunt had destroyed them. She was absolutely ghastly.'
GG: 'Did you see much of Sigmund?'
LF: 'Oh yes, I liked his company very much. He was never boring. He told me jokes. I remember how nice he was to the maid. I loved seeing him. I remember I took a book by Norman Douglas out of his library and on the title page someone had written "Please do not show to Professor Freud". Well, there was one limerick which went:
"Those girls who frequent picture palaces
Have no use for this psychoanalysis,
But although Doctor Freud
Is extremely annoyed
They cling to their long-standing fallacies."'
Another lyric often recalled by Lucian had a humorous dig at other famous Jewish intellectuals, including his one-time father-in-law, the sculptor Jacob Epstein (who once referred to Lucian as a 'spiv'):
There was once a family called Stein,
There was Gert,
There was Ep,
There was Ein.
Gert's writings were bunk,
Ep's statues were junk,
And no one could understand Ein.
An hour at breakfast would go by, sometimes two. Then it was time for work, and he gathered his bunch of keys and half-moon tortoiseshell glasses from the table; David would grab the papers. And so back to his Georgian town house with its perfect proportions, white sash windows, an iron gate at the front leading to the matt, dark grey front door, a bamboo hedge in the front shielding the house from anyone too inquisitive. No name was on the doorbell, and in any event the buzzer could not always be heard if Lucian was working upstairs. Unexpected visitors were discouraged.
Most of the great pictures of the last twenty-five years of his career had been painted a quarter of a mile away in the Holland Park studio. His house in Kensington Church Street had originally been bought to try to have a more comfortable life, and add an extra layer of privacy – always an obsession with him. He told one girlfriend that they might move in there together, but in the end that idea was far too entrapping. It became an alternative workplace but was more domesticated than the grimy squalor of Holland Park, where old Fortnum & Mason porcelain jars of caviar sat on his kitchen dresser alongside a chipped vase of congealed paintbrushes, dust-laden audio cassettes of Johnny Cash and old Christie's catalogues and corkscrews. Only in his last four years did he essentially abandon Holland Park for Kensington Church Street, where he used two rooms on the first floor as his full-time studio. He had liked a split existence in two places. Both were properties which today are worth millions of pounds, so different from his impoverished start in Paddington, when he used to scrape together the rent from his apparently modest income generated by his grandfather's royalties. Wherever he was, the only real purpose was to have a sanctuary in which to paint.
Almost every day after breakfast in Lucian's final three years, David would pose naked on an old mattress while Lucian worked on his last painting, Portrait of the Hound. It showed Eli the whippet dwarfed by the life-size nude figure of David. The title was a minor witticism for a major work, his finale: monumental and moving.
His last painting also cemented something that had been the case from Lucian's earliest days: he was wedded to the idea and practice of figurative art. He ignored abstraction, expressionism, postmodernism and conceptual art, and was disdainful about them, certain that prolonged and intense observation of the human figure was the core of an artist's purpose. A surprising amount of his early work has survived, stretching back seventy years. It includes some naive childhood drawings made in Germany and, more importantly, a sketchbook he had begun in 1941 when working as an ordinary seaman aboard the SS Baltrover, a cargo vessel chartered for Atlantic crossings. His canon is extensively varied, from delicate pencil drawings in the margins of love letters to mammoth canvases with swathes of naked flesh in oil paint, no two pictures the same in scale or composition.
Although eventually he became a symbol of figurative boldness as a modern artist, that was not how he was viewed in the 1970s and 80s, when America felt he had been left behind by the vanguard of expressionism and abstraction. He was entrenched in life-study portraiture and he made it provocative. 'It is the only point of getting up every morning: to paint, to make something good, to make something even better than before, not to give up, to compete, to be ambitious,' he said. It was often a lonely path. But while his art was deeply rooted in tradition, he made pictures that were at times considered shocking, dangerous, unsettling.
Excerpted from Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig. Copyright © 2013 Geordie Greig. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
3. Early Days,
4. First Loves,
6. Lorna's Legacy,
10. A Daughter's Tale,
11. Two Late Sitters,
12. Dealers and Gambling,