Lead book review

What made Lucian Freud so irresistible to women?

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Amedeo Modigliani thought Nina Hamnett, muse, painter, memoirist, had ‘the best tits in Europe’. She fell 40 feet from a window and was impaled on the basement railings. Not suicide. She was peeing out of the window, the shared lodging-house lavatory being too distant. On her deathbed, her breathing was like a harmonica. The collector Roland Penrose liked being tied up by a dominatrix, a woman wrestler, whom he and his photographer wife, Lee Miller, brought to England and shared. The busy philosopher A. J. Ayer was known as Juan Don. When Isabel Rawsthorne finally had sex with the persistent, overweight sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, she reported that it was ‘exhausting’. She had to do all the work. Auden predicted that his last words would be: ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Michael Tree, who married Anne Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, was a rattle known as Radio Belgravia — which might be an appropriate subtitle for The Lives of Lucian Freud.

These selected snippets of gossip, however interesting, are, you might think, peripheral to the life of Lucian Freud. But they tell us something crucial about the first volume of William Feaver’s biography. It is also an autobiography — written up from tapes and daily, noted, telephone conversations with his subject. Freud, who in his lifetime had a reputation for discretion and was litigious if his privacy was encroached on, was an unstoppable gossip. ‘How old am I now?’ he would ask. And that is a chronological question the reader is also liable to ask in the spate of non-stop disclosure.

As a biographical method, the rewards are obvious. Who but a prig doesn’t want to know that Francis Bacon once semi-publicly sucked off an unconscious, superbly endowed workman in a side room of the Colony Room Club? (The man vomited as he came.) The drawbacks are repetition, obscure chronology, tangled confusion in the telling — often quoted directly — and lack of explanatory annotation. On the one hand, first-hand, hand-held authenticity; on the other, a slight uncertainty and sometimes a yen for something more sober, something clearer.

For example, Freud had a long (by his standards) and fairly open affair with Belinda ‘Bindy’ Lambton. He painted her four times. Her husband, the disgraced peer Tony Lambton, bought all four paintings for £1,000, including ‘Portrait Fragment’. Surely the reader needs to know that ‘Portrait Fragment’ is a full-frontal depiction of Lady Lambton’s vulva — impressive, complicated, the object as in itself it really is, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase. Lower down the scale, readers might find it helpful to be told that the twice mentioned painter Vic Willing was the husband of Paula Rego.

Equally, after a two-page resumé of the slum landlord Peter Rachman, we don’t need the epithet ‘the slum landlord’ 20 pages on. The copy editor should also have cut repeated information about Lincoln Kirstein’s unhelpful, disparaging remarks about ‘Woman with Carnation’, a painting he owned. We are twice told, 30 pages apart, that Bacon gave, as a wedding present to Freud and the heiress Caroline Blackwood, his painting of a pope between two sides of beef (based on the Deakin photograph of himself between two coarse keyboards of ribs).


This volume covers Freud’s childhood, awkward adolescence, enlistment in the merchant navy and a voyage to New York on the SS Baltrover, a long sojourn on the Greek island of Poros, two failed marriages (first to Kitty Epstein, then to Blackwood) and numerous affairs and their progeny. Freud comments on the simultaneous children by different women: ‘You ask me why are these children all the same age? Don’t you realise I had a bicycle?’ (Anne Dunn had ‘three or four abortions’.)

Freud straddled high and low society. He lived in lowly Paddington, in Delamere Terrace, but we glimpse him explaining his tartan trews to Princess Margaret: ‘An old Portuguese tartan, ma’am.’ (They were Royal Stewart.) He takes Garbo on a date. She behaves like a star in a film: ‘ “Let’s stand in the rain.” I was wearing my best suit. Fucking hell.’

Freud lived in a world of sexual Lego. As a taster, here are a few typically astonishing sentences:

When I started going out with Caroline, Henrietta [Moraes] was very excited; one evening, Norman Bowler, Johnny Minton’s boyfriend, was dancing with Caroline and he said: ‘Henrietta, I think I’m going to fall in love with you.’ Caroline had a fit. Norman Bowler went on to marry Henrietta, who was pregnant by Colin Tennant at the time. Yet Tennant was reported as being a possible husband for Princess Margaret.

At one time, Freud seems to have been servicing Suzy Boyt, Jane Willoughby, Bernardine Coverley and June Keeley. Boyt had four children by him: Ali (Alexander, 1952), Rose (1958), Isobel (Ib, 1960) and Susie (1969). ‘I’d like to thank you for the children,’ she told a bemused Freud 40 years on. Coverley was the mother of Esther and Bella.

His friend the painter Frank Auerbach has this to say about Freud’s seduction technique: ‘I’ve seen men, boyfriends, driven mad by him using his extraordinary power of picking people up at a party by the side of their boyfriends and taking them to the bathroom…’ Auerbach himself was very good looking, but nothing compared to Freud  — once he’d had the shark-like fang removed from between his front teeth, not to mention a supernumerary little toe.

As a troubled adolescent, Lucian was briefly, informally analysed by a Freudian, Dr Willi Hoffer. Hoffer wondered if Lucian was homosexual — because he was uncircumcised and his father Ernst was circumcised. Freud himself is emphatic. David Carr, the Peek Frean biscuit heir, ‘reached over and started to undo my trousers. I told him to lay off… “Thanks, awfully, I can undo my own flies,” I said. I was never queer.’ However, others aren’t so certain. Freud’s cousin the poet Michael Hamburger says: ‘He told me about some homosexual experiences he had had in the merchant navy.’ Francis Bacon put it about that Lucian went to bed with Auden because he was famous, but found himself unable to perform.

Freud had a long, intense affair with Lorna Wishart, an incredibly beautiful, wilful woman 20 years his senior. She gave Freud the notorious zebra head (from Rowland Ward, the taxidermist in Piccadilly) and drove an open-top Bentley until petrol became unavailable during the war, when she ‘put it on grass and birds lived in it’. The affair began with the couple being surprised in flagrante by the husband: ‘I was caught by Wish with Lorna. There was an awful scene in a field. She was concerned for me; he shouted and called her a whore, probably because of her being with a much younger boy.’ (He seems to have been 21 or thereabouts.) Their relationship, a real passion, faltered when Freud took up with Pauline Tennant. Lorna said: ‘I thought I’d given you up for Lent, but I’ve given you up for good.’ She had become a devout Catholic.

Laurie Lee, her previous, attacked Freud in the street, and reported that Lorna was discombobulated: ‘She goes to him when I long for her, and finds him in bed with a boyfriend.’ The boyfriend, according to Lorna, was Charlie Lumley, a pretty petty criminal from Paddington whom Freud successfully painted several times. (Drue Heinz owned a terrific portrait.) Auerbach thinks the gossip about Lumley had some foundation.

More significantly, in the aftermath of the liaison with Lorna, Freud bedded her son, Michael Wishart. It was shortlived because, Michael reported, it was ‘physically painful’ for Lucian. This is confirmed by Freud’s former lover Anne Dunn, who married Wishart as an act of revenge: ‘Michael himself told me of the affair with Lucian but I think it was of brief duration when they were both staying at the Hôtel d’Isly.’ Homosexuality is the one area where the biographer dissents from his subject.

Freud met the unevenly gifted, influential, faintly poisonous Francis Bacon in late 1944 or early 1945. The artist Michael Ayrton said in a radio broadcast that Bacon couldn’t draw. (He couldn’t. Freud could. But drawing wasn’t fashionable.) They met. ‘Is drawing what you do?’, Bacon asked. ‘I wouldn’t want to do that.’ He was a master of disparagement: ‘I had a long talk with Henry Moore. I think I really managed to fuck up his work.’ Moore had the backing of the establishment. He was the face of British modernism. When Freud became successful, equalling Bacon’s sales prices, the friendship was effectively over. Bacon wasn’t ‘interested’ in what he did — and withdrew into himself. He had his own promo to tell. Much as, here, Freud gets to tell his version of events with patchy panache.

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