I asked my mother why she had never had any children with Lucian Freud. He had been her first husband, was intelligent, talented, and handsome—all qualities that were vital to her and that she wished for her own children. “Because he was just not very nice” was her answer, and it made sense.
My mother, the writer Caroline Blackwood, had been introduced to Lucian at a ball in London when she was 18 and had been immediately attracted to his Byronic looks and raffish air. He was a German-Jewish émigré, and although his grandfather Sigmund was one of the most famous intellectuals of the day, Lucian was treated with suspicion by some of the English aristocracy into which my mother had been born.
Having led a sheltered life under the auspices of my snobbish grandmother Maureen, who was born a Guinness and became the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, my mother was desperate to escape the confines of her upbringing. She had never met someone as exotic and dangerous-seeming as Lucian. The fact that he was an outsider appealed to her, and she saw in him an entree into a more bohemian world.
Lucian, it seems, was equally taken with my mother. She was shy with vast, cloudy blue eyes, and, although she was fiercely intelligent, she came across as vulnerable and in need of protection. While my grandmother and her social group watched Lucian’s pursuit and ultimate conquest of my mother in horror, there was an irony: Lucian was also a snob, and as mindful of social status as they were. My mother represented everything he wanted to be a part of. They married quietly, dashing my grandmother’s hopes of a grand wedding.
Lucian was not unaware of the anti-Semitic sentiments of his mother-in-law’s friends. When my mother boldly brought him to a party, Randolph Churchill (Winston’s son) shouted as they entered the room: “What the bloody hell is Maureen doing, turning her house into a bloody synagogue?” Lucian kept his cool then, but the next time he ran into Randolph he knocked him down.
The young couple moved to Paris, where my mother sat for what were to be three astonishingly beautiful portraits. She said she knew he was a sort of genius when she met him, she just didn’t know why. After spending months being painted by him slowly (he painted painstakingly), seeing herself transferred onto his canvas, she understood why.
Lucian’s extraordinary talent, however, did not make him an easy husband. The years of their marriage were the loneliest of her life. Lucian would disappear for hours gambling on horses. My mother’s family had cut her off, and so they relied solely on income from his paintings. At that point he was considered “promising,” but a long way from the record-breaking prices his works fetch today. When he did manage to sell something he would celebrate lavishly in an expensive restaurant with champagne and caviar, forgetting his gambling debts.
But it was his infidelity that got her. “He couldn’t have been more obvious,” my mother told me, “even on our honeymoon. We would be sitting in some outdoor café, and every time an even remotely pretty girl walked past, his head would turn and follow her with the most ghastly lascivious eyes.”
After five years my mother was done, but leaving Lucian was not easy; he was not used to being left by women, and he had a frightening temper. With the gleeful help of her mother, she managed to hide in Spain while the divorce went through.
When I was 15 I ran into Lucian. I had known him a little over the years, but, though he and my mother were cordial, he had never really forgiven her for leaving him. So I was surprised and flattered when he invited me to lunch. My mother recoiled at my lunching with her ex-husband but said I would probably find him interesting and charming. And I did.
He told me stories about my grandmother, how she had telephoned the British authorities to tell them Lucian’s father was a German spy, and that she introduced him to everyone pronouncing his last name “Fraud.”
“I would like to work from you,” he said at the end of a lavish lunch. “Would you come to my studio next week?”
When I told my mother his request, her famous eyes grew even larger and bluer. “You are never going to sit for him. Don’t you know he fucks everyone he paints?”
I didn’t know that, but it made sense, as most of his models had been painted nude, and not in the most flattering way. My mother was usually pretty cavalier about what her children did, so I was surprised at how violent her reaction was. It was also comforting to know that she felt the need to protect me.
Later I learned the reason for her anger, and why she had remained angry until her deathbed, when Lucian telephoned her to make peace. My eldest sister, Natalya, and my mother had a tumultuous relationship during Natalya’s teen years. In one particularly vicious argument, just as my 16-year-old sister was about to slam the front door, she turned to my mother and said, “Guess what, Mum? I am fucking Lucian Freud!”
Perhaps my mother was right: not a very nice man. R.I.P.
Lowell is the author of Why Not Say What Happened? A Memoir.