Portrait of The Artist

A New Book Gives A Rare Glimpse Into The Life of Lucian Freud

A new memoir exposes intimate details of the artist’s private life—from his burning temper, and excessive gambling to nude sittings with his 14-year-old daughter. By Erin Cunningham.

10.22.13 9:45 AM ET

Lucian Freud led a guarded life. 

The late, great British modernist painter—and grandson of Sigmund Freud—valued his privacy. He maintained close circles of friends (whom he ensured would rarely interact with each other), and entrusted only a certain few with his personal information. From 1940 until the early 2000s, Freud participated in no press interviews; he was known to physically attack photographers who attempted to take his picture, and he cancelled the publication of two authorized biographies about himself during his lifetime. 

Yet despite the eccentricities in his personal life, Freud became internationally-known for his explicit figure paintings—most of which seemingly blurred the lines between art and eroticism. From Benefits Supervisor Sleeping to Bowery Back, Freud established a legacy of somewhat disturbing yet widely-recognizable pieces.

Geordie Greig, a journalist and close friend of Freud’s during the latter years of his life, provides an unobstructed view into the artist’s professional and private in his new memoir, Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter.

Greig’s first experience of Freud dates back to March 1978 when, at age 17, he saw Freud’s painting Naked Man with Rat at the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London for the first time.  After many failed attempts to hunt down Freud for an interview—he even chased down his friends (and subjects) David Hockney and Francis Bacon—Greig finally heard from Freud in April, 1997. “’Do you want to come for breakfast?’ Was the sentence which changed our relationship,” Greig writes of a 2002 conversation he had with Freud. “Come at 6:45 tomorrow morning to the studio,’” Freud said.

Greig pulls the title from his most intimate experiences with Freud—sharing frequent breakfasts at Notting Hill restaurant Clarke’s with Freud and his assistant, David Dawson. “Breakfast at Clarke’s was precious downtime for him,” Greig writes. It was there that Freud frequently had a meal of pain au raisin, porridge, or scrambled eggs and toast, topped off with a pot of Earl Grey tea. Over breakfast, he would share humorous, private memories of the past: nightclubbing with Kate Moss, dating Greta Garbo, attending the ballet at Covent Garden with Jacob Rothschild.

Greig delves into Freud’s rarely-discussed personal life, from his burning temper—“Lucian told me how Francis Bacon tried to calm him down: ‘He asked me why I always got into fights, and suggested a less abrasive manner: “Use your charm’””—to his excessive gambling—“whenever he made money from selling his pictures in the earlier part of his career, he gambled wildly, often losing the lot”—to his close friendship with Bacon.

But for all of his quirks, the public has been particularly fascinated with Freud’s use of his children in nude portraits. Freud had 14 children (although friends and journalists have estimated the number to be closer to 30-40 from five different women, with a 36-year gap separating the oldest from the youngest. Freud said he had never thought about having so many children—when asked by Greig “Did you want children?” Freud replied, “No. I don’t mean ‘Oh God, children!’ but it seemed quite exciting when women were pregnant. I don’t like babies. I think partly because they’re so vulnerable.” However, his offspring served as a prominent subject throughout his work. His 1987 painting Annabel Sleeping features his second daughter sleeping in her blue nightgown; he painted another image of his daughter Bella lounging in 1981.

Although most of his children were frequently portrayed in his oil paintings, in 1963, his eldest, Annie—then age 14—was asked “to remove all her clothes and teenage inhibitions for a nude portrait.”

“It was certainly risqué to use as a naked model a somewhat innocent and naïve teenager,” Greig writes. “This was a momentous and controversial event in Annie’s life. Many felt it was reprehensible, if not downright immoral. Lucian did not care. The question of whether it would damage his daughter simply did not occur to him.”

The portrait, Naked Child Laughing, shows a young, modest Annie perched on a sofa in Freud’s Paddington studio. Her legs are closed, and her head rests on her left palm as she gazes towards the ground. The portrait of Annie was Freud’s first nude, full-body painting. It invoked a strange juxtaposition of innocence and sexuality, as Annie’s figure radiated a mix of comfort and fear. There exists a sense of psychosis projected through his paintings, as if genetically passed down from his late grandfather.

“We actually had a wonderful time; it is the picture of me by Dad that I most admire,” Annie Freud told Greig of her first sitting. “I knew that some people felt what I did with my father was dangerous and inappropriate… There was some hurt done, not intentionally, and it was nothing to do with sex—perhaps it was more an intrusion into innocence. Being naked in front of your father certainly went against the tide of opinion at the time.”

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Annie continued to sit for her father, reminiscing on their moments together—like when she wished to cover her nipples with her long hair, yet Freud wouldn’t allow it—or in 1975 when she posed with American artist Alice Weldon.  Naked Child Laughing seemingly started Freud’s career—and later severed as the basis for his legacy of figure painting, particularly those in the nude. As time went on, his strokes began to evolve into looser, freer ones. His subject matter became more risqué over time, as he painted more nudes, including children.

Yet despite his unconventionalities, Freud was a celebrity in Britain. He painted major icons, from Queen Elizabeth II to Jerry Hall to a pregnant Kate Moss. He dodged scandal after scandal involving infidelity and his many children. It was his mix of expressionism and surrealism, however, that allowed Freud a legacy of admiration rather than notoriety.

Until he passed away in July 2011, he continued to paint; Freud did not believe in retirement. “What does that mean?” he’d ask. “Not doing what you have always done so that you have to find something to do. That is what so-called hobbies are for. If I am asked about [hobbies] I say, ‘Wanking,’ just to stop talk of a boring topic.”

‘Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain's Great Modern Painter’ by Geordie Greig. 272 p. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $18.36