Entertainment Books

Wednesday 16 October 2019

The tree of Lucian Freud

Emily Hourican

The great artist Lucian Freud, who died last summer, left an estate of around £120m to be divided equally among his children, their number ranging from 14 to a rumoured 40. Emily Hourican chronicles the remarkable life and loves of Lucian Freud.

When Ivana Lowell was asked by Lucian Freud to sit for him, to her surprise, her normally remarkably laissez-faire mother, Caroline Blackwood, was adamantly opposed.

"You are never going to sit for him," Ivana recalls her mother saying. For good measure she added that "don't you know he f**ks" many of the women he paints.

Given that Caroline had been married to Lucian - he was her first husband, the marriage lasted just five chaotic years - Ivana had to accept she probably knew what she was talking about. Some years later, Ivana found out that her oldest sister, Natalya, who died tragically young of a drug overdose, had told her mother during a row when she was just 16, that she was sleeping with Lucian. "He was not," Ivana recalled, with deadpan precision, "a very nice man."

Nice, perhaps not, but Lucian Freud was certainly mesmerising, even before his talent made him famous. He came to England from Germany when he was 10, in 1933 -- the year Hitler became chancellor -- to escape the Nazi persecution. He was the middle of three sons, and adored by his mother, rather to the exclusion of her other boys. His oldest brother, Clement, with whom Lucian fell out in the mid-Fifties, and never spoke to again, not even attending his funeral in 2009, once recalled: "When she came into the nursery, she nodded to Stephen and me and sat down with Lucian and whispered. They had secrets. I did not realise for many years that this is not what good mothers do."

By the time Lucian met Lady Caroline Blackwood, daughter of Maureen Guinness, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, and generally hailed as the most beautiful, and eligible, debutante of the 1949 season, he had found his way into proximity with the British aristocracy via his friendship with Anne Fleming, wife of Bond creator Ian.

However, even though his grandfather was Sigmund Freud and his family well-established intellectuals, to the British upper classes this was irrelevant. To them, he was simply a Jewish upstart. Indeed, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford after the marriage: "Poor Maureen's daughter made a runaway match with a terrible Yid," while Randolph Churchill, son of Winston, seeing him arrive at a party, shouted: "What the bloody hell is Maureen doing, turning her house into a bloody synagogue?" Maureen herself introduced him everywhere as "Lucian Fraud", and cut off Caroline's allowance when she ran off with him.

What his detractors among the British aristocracy could not see, were indifferent to, was Freud's remarkable charisma. His lack of credentials and Jewishness blinded them. However, not everyone was so fixated. Nancy Mitford's sister, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, whom Freud painted in Woman in a White Shirt, one of the portraits currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, as part of a major exhibition, was captivated. She described him as having "a sort of starry quality ... an extraordinary sort of mercurial thing. He's like something not quite like a human being, more like a will-o'-the-wisp".

Typically of Freud, that painting of Debo is a stark, forensic representation of a woman, with the dank, mottled skin tones that are his trademark, rather than yet another tribute to her legendary china-doll beauty. What he saw was beyond the surface, and interestingly, "As I have got older," she wrote in her memoir, Wait for Me!, "so my likeness to the portrait grows."

To Caroline, Freud was everything she had dreamed of -- compelling, handsome, intelligent and free of the endless social expectations that so constrained most of her acquaintances at that point. With his piercing blue-green eyes and predatory, bird-like look (not unlike Samuel Beckett in later life), he was quite different to anyone she had yet met, and would open up a world beyond Debrett's Peerage for her, and give some shape to her own artistic yearnings. He would also appal her mother -- something that was never far from her ambitions. And for all that Freud affected to despise the upper classes in return for their casual anti-Semitism and indifference, in fact he was something of a snob, and admired precisely the kind of effortless entitlement Caroline Blackwood represented. She was beautiful -- with wide blue eyes, "the hue of [a] Persian rug and large as eagle eggs", according to one admirer -- brilliant and an heiress. She was also, at the time, just 18, painfully shy and malleable. At the time they met, Freud was nearly 30, and already married, to Kitty Epstein (he had previously had an affair with her aunt, the flamboyant, dazzling Lorna Garman, who bought him the zebra head that accompanied him to his many lodgings). With Kitty he had two of the 14 children he acknowledged during his life (the actual number is rumoured to be far higher -- 40, according to the more extravagant, and scarcely believable, tales).

Caroline and Lucian moved to Paris, where they lived a pretty hand-to-mouth existence. Without Caroline's allowance, their only income was his painting, in those days still a touch-and-go provider. When he did sell something, much of the money would be spent on drinking and gambling, to which he was for a long time addicted, once saying -- "I always went all out. The idea of it being a sport seemed to me insane. The thing I liked was risking everything. Losing everything to do with money". At one point, when back in England, he owed the Kray twins around half-a-million pounds, and was warned by police to take greater care in his dealings with them. He was also a brawler, and spent nights in jail after punch-ups: "It wasn't because I liked fighting," he once insisted, "it was really just that people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them."

Once the first flush of excitement had passed, it was a miserable existence for Caroline, who was by then well set on the path of alcoholism that would, in effect, blight her life. Freud was already on their honeymoon blatantly eyeing up other women, and made very little secret of his infidelities. He was reckless with money, frequently stayed away for days at a time gambling, and could be brutal during their increasingly frequent rows. One friend recalled a particularly vicious fight, when Lucian pushed Caroline into the hall of the rather seedy hotel in which they lived. She was completely naked, but he refused to let her back in.

After five years, she had had enough, and left him, escaping to Spain. Lucian didn't like being left by his women, and could pursue them aggressively. The legacy of those five turbulent years are a handful of magnificent, heart-wrenching portraits, Girl in Bed, Girl Reading, Girl in a Green Dress and the last, in which Lucian himself looks down at Caroline in bed, turned away from him, with everything that cannot be articulated about the death of love between them. There were no children, unusually for Freud, because Caroline could clearly see that he wasn't "nice" enough to have children with: "He hated responsibility and it would have been crazy to have children with him," she later said. Caroline may have been an alcoholic with a fairly chaotic life, but she had sufficient instinct for self-preservation not to tie herself irrevocably to Freud, whose emotional coldness was gradually becoming as obvious as his artistic talent.

For some, if not all of the marriage to Caroline, Freud was also continuing his affair with Katherine Margaret McAdam, at one stage babysitter to his children with Kitty, by then a fashion student at St Martin's. He and Katherine had four children together, long dubbed "the forgotten Freuds" with at least one born before the divorce from Caroline came through. He was also seeing Bernardine Coverley, who, although 20 years younger than him, died just four days after he did. She was a convent-educated girl whose Irish Catholic parents ran a pub in Brixton. She grew up to be something of a wild child and met Lucian in the clubs of Soho and Notting Hill, then became a writer and gardener and travelled widely with her two small daughters by Freud -- Bella, now a fashion designer, and Esther, a writer.

She and the girls spent some years in Morocco, with the experience later turned into a novel, Hideous Kinky, by Esther, and made into a film with Kate Winslet. Freud was also, at the same time, in a relationship with Suzy Boyt, a student of his at the Slade Art School, with whom he had five more children and who later kept the family together by running a small vintage clothes business.

In fact, Freud had three daughters born to three different women in one year, 1961 -- Lucy, born to Katherine; Isobel, born to Suzy, and Bella (remarkably, also christened Isobel), born to Bernardine. He lived half the time with Katherine and their children, until she discovered just how rampant his infidelities were. Unable to keep him away -- he would apparently simply turn up and camp outside their doorstep until she emerged in the morning -- Katherine eventually took the children and moved to a council estate in south-west London, where Freud never tried to find them. She apparently left behind a self-portrait he had given her, which later sold for several million pounds.

The distance between his glamorous Kensington life and their far more deprived existence may as well have been a thousand miles; they saw no more of him until they grew up and began to discover an unsuspected proliferation of half-siblings.

Even once contact was re-established, they saw very little of their father; his daughter Lucy McAdam invited him to her wedding, but he neither answered nor attended. In fact, Lucian's parenting seems to have been a matter of chance more than anything. The children of those women who stayed close to him -- in particular Bernardine Coverley and Suzy Boyt -- had reasonably close relationships, with him and each other, but where the women distanced themselves, their children were largely ignored. Only a few of his 14 acknowledged offspring had his phone number, or any form of regular contact with him.

It is telling that all four of the "forgotten Freuds" are artists, and three of those have found in him a muse. Lucy McAdam Freud was commissioned by the Royal Academy in 2008 to paint a portrait of her father, which she did from a photograph. She sent him the catalogue, but he never responded. His son Paul McAdam Freud did a series of deathbed paintings and sketches of his father last year, which were exhibited, while Jane McAdam Freud made a huge sculpture of Lucian's head in the months before his death. Another son, Frank Paul, son of the artist Celia Paul who, like Suzy Boyt, was one of Lucian's students at Slade, is also an artist, though more conceptual.

Uninterested in small children -- he once said: "I like them when I can talk to them and take them out," (although he did paint a very beautiful picture of Bella at just a few months old, Baby on A Green Sofa) -- Lucian would sometimes ask his children to sit for him once they turned 15 or 16. This often entailed being naked, although they are mostly quick to insist that this never bothered them -- "I simply took my clothes off and sat on a sofa when he asked. It never occurred to me to be ashamed," said Esther Freud; while Rosie Boyt claimed that sitting for him was, "a way of simply being with him ... It's not as if I'm posing for Playboy or peddling my wares in a red-light district".

It was as if he couldn't concentrate on his children until they were his subjects. One daughter, writer Susie Boyt, recalled him, in an interview with the Sunday Independent some years ago, as a big presence in her young life, even though he and her mother split before she was born. "He came regularly but not that often," she said. Susie began sitting regularly for him when she turned 16, and there are three completed portraits of her. "I went from seeing him a handful of times a year to three or four times a week. We talked all the time. It was amazing, and went very well from very early on. We got to know each other, discovered we had a lot in common, liked a lot of the same things. We talked about books a lot, I used to sing for him sometimes, and he used to make really delicious things to eat. In my rather unpromising schoolgirl life, it was an instant injection of glamour," she recalled, perhaps a little wistfully. This singing and eating are leitmotifs of the long-drawn out, often tortuous process of sitting for Lucian. As is the remarkable experience of having his full attention trained on you for as long as the sittings lasted -- one model has said she "felt like being an apple in the Garden of Eden. When it was over, I felt as if I had been cast out of Paradise".

This sense of intense rejection was common among those he no longer had a use for, the chill of indifference in painful contrast to the warmth of his attention.

And it is perhaps this charisma -- the knowledge that he was, whatever his faults, a remarkable talent -- that has meant so few of Lucian's women have ever spoken publicly about him. Even Katherine McAdam, so determined to put distance between herself and him, even though it also meant putting herself and her children beyond his influence and potential financial aid, has never said a word. Nor have Bernadine Coverley or Suzy Boyt. More recently, journalist Emily Bearn, who dated the 80-year-old Freud when she was just 27, having first posed for him, and sculptor Alexandra Williams-Wynn, possibly his last girlfriend, have been equally discreet.

Although Alexandra did pose naked with him in his studio for a series of photographs entitled The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer. But none has shown any desire to dish dirt on him, or to express the pain of betrayal in public denunciation. Clearly, whatever the mesmerising effect of his personality, it is enduring.

Even his children, many of whom have spoken up about their relationship, or lack of, with him since his death, are all at pains to point out that they feel no resentment or bitterness, are just glad for whatever level of contact they were able to establish. "He gives the best hugs," Lucy McAdam Freud insisted, apparently determined to overlook the years of neglect.

At the time of his death last July, aged 88, Lucian was still at the height of a career that had remained red-hot for more than 40 years, since the mid-Sixties, when he was dubbed "the best realist painter alive," by Time magazine. In 2008, one of his paintings, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, was sold at Christie's to Roman Abramovich for $33.6m, setting a new world record for a living artist (he beat the previous record, held by Jeff Koons, by just over $10m).

He leaves an estate of around £120m, seemingly to be divided equally among his children. Whether more children now come forward looking for recognition, and a share of the spoils, remains to be seen, but it seems that in death, if not in life, Lucian Freud was determined to be equitable.

Lucian Freud Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, runs until May 27

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