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The best books on Lucian Freud

recommended by William Feaver

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968 - 2011 by William Feaver

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968 - 2011
by William Feaver


Though ferociously private, Lucian Freud spoke about painting, the art world and his life and loves to his confidante and frequent collaborator, William Feaver, on the phone most weeks for many years. Feaver's transcript forms the core of his definitive two-volume biography. He speaks with us about the best books for understanding the life and work of this renowned painter, and the very particular collaboration that led to this magisterial account of one of the finest painters of the last century.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968 - 2011 by William Feaver

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame 1968 - 2011
by William Feaver


Before we speak about the best books for understanding his life and work, who was Lucian Freud?

Lucian Freud was an extraordinary, outstanding painter operating in an age when a lot of things were down to novelty and down to programs of modernism. He wasn’t having any of that. Which doesn’t make him a reactionary, it simply makes him someone who believed in painting. Despite all the picaresque episodes of his life, painting was the basis, the centre, the thing he was most serious about. He became famous really only in the latter years of his life, covered in Fame: 1968-2011, the second volume of my biography. In England and in London, he was perhaps famous all his life, but globally not until he was in his seventies. As happens with most artists, he was rather a latecomer to the international scene.

Did you choose him to write a biography about, or did he choose you?

The London Sunday Times chose me. I was living in Newcastle on Tyne in the north of England and was doing the odd thing for the Sunday Times when they got in touch with me asking to interview this Lucian Freud. This was in the early 70s, when he’s about to have his 50th birthday and his first big public museum exhibition. I learned later on that someone else had been appointed to write about him, but then Freud had freaked at the degree to which this man was going around investigating his private life with chats to people that he didn’t want chatted to. So I was brought in as an innocent from the North Country, coming in clean. One of the first things I said to him, completely impromptu, was that I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in his private life, that I was only interested in the art. Regularly, over the decades after that, he berated me for breaking my word. Although, of course he cooperated with me enormously.

It seems natural in discussing Lucian Freud books that we start with his childhood. Emil and the Detectives is a tale of boyhood derring-do, set in a time and a place that must have formed some of Freud’s earliest memories. 

Freud was a Jewish Berliner by birth. These facts gradually impinged upon him once he was no longer a toddler and became a boy. I chose Emil and the Detectives although there are other books from childhood that he was also very keen on – the poems of Christian Morgenstern, for example. However, Emil has this vivid atmosphere of growing up in late 1920s Berlin, in which the protagonist and his young accomplices, rough-and-tumble working class boys, set out to catch a mysterious man in a hat who had pinched money from Emil when he fell asleep on a train.

“Books and Lucian: the ties were close from the start”

It very much reflects what Lucian’s imaginative life as a child actually was. He was brought up in a privileged part of Berlin, Regentenstrasse, which is near the Tiergarten and bang in the centre of prosperous Berlin. He went to an ordinary local school and it was only in the very early 30s, when his classmates were being enrolled in the Hitler Youth, that he became aware of the differences between him and them. Which makes this particularly apposite as one of the five books under discussion. It’s a charming and funny tale, wittily illustrated by Walter Trier, who incidentally ended up in London just before the last war and became one of the greatest illustrators in town, much admired by the young Freud. These are important connections – illustration and lively childhood activities. Also, Lucian’s love at the time for being part of a gang, going around pocketing chocolates from sweetshops and the like.

One could easily read Emil as a stand-in for the young Freud, a brilliant but difficult child in many respects.

He was. Lucian didn’t particularly get on with his mother’s two other children – his elder brother and his younger brother. He was bright, mercurial and imaginative and in the early years he was very much tied up with his mother: centre of her attentions and affection. She introduced him to books. In this pre-Hitler Berlin, Lucian enjoyed something of a magical childhood. She got him reading Alice in Wonderland in preparation for the family’s move to Britain in 1933, right after Hitler had come to power. Another book that loomed strongly in his early imagination was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, the biography of a horse, much of it woeful, written in the 1870s. Freud’s love of horses was a fixture throughout his life – a love of spending money on horses and losing money on them, and actually riding them too. Children’s books were stimulants in his psychological makeup. Books and Lucian: the ties were close from the start.

In later life, Freud did assemble the most extraordinary gang of individuals, and your biography brings us into this inner circle of fascinating characters, ranging from lowlifes to high society. He seems a very self-aware protagonist in the narrative of his own life. As the title of your biography suggests, he appears to have packed several lives into his one life span.

Freud was extraordinarily versatile in his loyalties; his loyalty to people. I became a friend of his (as did others) however we were all compartmented. He liked conversations to be one-on-one, not two to three or more. He wasn’t good in a hubbub. A small table-load was okay, but not any more than would satisfactorily attune to his wit, his bandying of scandal, and of course his serious talk: never ponderous, always light-footed and self-deprecating, to some extent. This mix was a common feature I think among the painters, besides Lucian, that I became friendly with and involved with at an early age – the painters Michael Andrews, for example, and Frank Auerbach, whom I have sat for practically every Monday evening since 2003; the people I most admired as painters, who have been tagged the ‘School of London’.

In reading The Lives of Lucian Freud I was reminded of Dickens with this panoply of characters arrayed before us. Like Dickens, one character that Freud draws out very vividly is London itself. I was delighted to discover that Freud would grind charcoal into his paints to give them a London-like grittiness.

London is peculiarly important when it comes to appreciating Freud and the art of his times. Just as New York is and Paris obviously was before that, or Florence or Lascaux in centuries before that: locales for small groups of painters leading somewhat solitary lives, in that painting is a solitary pursuit, even if you’re doing portraits. These lives hinged very much on the nature of living in London, the whereabouts and the climate and indeed such events as cropped up around them.

The next book you’ve chosen, Private View, brings to light the development of the British art scene in the early 60s. The book jacket cover describes it as ‘the first book ever to tell how London became with Paris and New York, one of the world’s three capitals of art’.

The surprising thing is that surely alongside this coffee-table book there should be companion volumes: a Private View (Paris) and Private View (New York), but there hasn’t been, not specifically on this immersive scale as far as I’m aware. Obviously, there’s been lots published about New York as an arts capital, but nothing so vivid an encapsulation of a time and place as Private View by John Russell, Bryan Robertson and Lord Snowdon. Living in the far north of England, as I did then, to me Private View was my introduction to a wonderfully busy world of people achieving extraordinary things, a world centred on London. Snowdon’s telling photographs and John Russell’s text (as art critic of, successively, the London Sunday Times and the New York Times, writing in a slightly waspish manner) intrigued me at the time. Now all these years later, it looks to be a wonderful period piece. It’s a book which mixes illustration and photographs, very radically different photographs from what you might usually get in an art book, along with a certain lack of solemnity but a great deal of detail, some of it gossip – an admirable mix for any sort of art biography.

It’s striking how many entries in this book formed part of Freud’s extended circle. It’s almost like a visual Rolodex of his London ‘gang’.

The situation of the artists working in a big art centre like Paris, London or New York is that they lead lives of solitude during studio hours, and more often than not extreme sociability in the odd hours afterwards. You have to wind down and you have to see a bit of life. You need a social life and in Lucian’s case you have to have an amorous life too. All these things come together here, and this book was my prompt for getting involved in London. The writing of this biography did not depend too much on the London Library, that great public-private library, which allows you access to the shelves and which for writers of all kinds is a great asset to living in London. This was actually a book to be written not thanks to the London Library particularly, but in day-to-day conversations and in moving around and investigating what was happening.

A recent conversation we had here on Five Books featured the Warhol Diaries, a document that Andy Warhol practically dictated to a confidante. Your conversations with Freud – were they a calculated form of preparation for the ‘novel’ you were to write after his death? He famously remarked that a biography was out of the question, but that a novel would be acceptable, the first ‘funny art book’.

It was a very odd relationship. Initially, after I had written the first major magazine article on Freud in the early 70s, I became the art critic of the Observer. Which meant, as Lucian mockingly said, that ‘eternal vigilance’ was warranted. I did have to be careful not to appear to have my favourites and un-favourites. I had to serve the reader as opposed to serving the interests of anybody else, including my own. That meant that for the first fifteen or twenty years of my friendship with Lucian, this was a consideration. After I left the Observer in the late 90s however, when the idea of doing a short monograph on him had cropped up, I had already curated exhibitions with him and we were quite close. It was not out of the blue, but it was a change of direction that I was doing the portrait of Lucian and not the other way around.

Lucian had inquired two or three times whether I should like to sit with him. No, I would not like to sit for him was my response, because I was the one behind the easel, as it were. This book developed, therefore, from being a short monograph into a longer book. The more we talked and the more I recorded him talking, the more it seemed that this was sort of an infinite resource and that I had to stick with it. Rather like keeping a diary I suppose. It was dutiful as much as anything else, even before it became a signed-up project with Bloomsbury, the publishers.

“He wasn’t good in a hubbub”

By that stage, the monograph was already ten years in the making, we’d already had ten years of me not writing the book. It was very disconcerting for me when he said he really couldn’t bear the idea of it being published. He did not like the sound of his own voice too much, and although I assured him it was good, he disagreed and didn’t like the exposure. I don’t blame him. It must be the most ghastly thing, having a book written about one without one’s control, not just from an editorial perspective, but just for the sheer scope of potential embarrassment all around. So it was understood that this would appear as a ‘novel’ after he died. I would continue and we talked and talked. Every afternoon as he knocked off from work for a bit, he liked to phone people he enjoyed speaking to: the art historian John Richardson in New York from time to time and a few more. All of us in our compartmented boxes, of course. It was this exclusive entrée, that was also non-exclusive, although none were committed to the book as I was. So I was special. He noted that.

His relationships with his models similarly often had a certain reciprocal commitment to accomplishing a particular work.

It’s a strange situation, sitting for a portrait, somewhat like going to the doctor but in reversed order. I’m speaking now as a seasoned sitter for paintings by Frank Auerbach. One turns up, gives one’s hours, enjoyably it must be said, as there’s conversation and part of the job of the artist is to be at least a little entertaining, keeping you alert and even keeping you awake. It’s intimate. Almost as intimate as going to the dentist.

At the best of times, the exchanges can be illuminating. Imagine if Mrs. Siddons, prime actress, in sitting for Gainsborough, had had a diary going. Their conversations would have been memoir and gossip dizzily combined, I imagine. How good it would be to have such a soundtrack to the paintings. To be quoted sparingly of course!

Certainly it fires the imagination thinking about some of the unrecorded conversations that took place between Freud and his sitters. In selecting the best books on Lucian Freud, you might have chosen books by or about Auerbach or Francis Bacon as part of your selection, both contemporaries and you might say ‘partners in crime’. Why did you choose A Free House by Walter Sickert, an English post-impressionist painter? 

Sickert was Austrian-Danish-British, a great European figure. He was a follower-student of Degas, knew Whistler very well, and they were almost competitors for a time. He wore very loud suits, was a great dresser-up and loved being a kind of artist rascal, always against the establishment, as he saw it. The London establishment was peculiarly stuffy in his day, roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s. And he wrote brilliantly.

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His book A Free House is a selection of his writings. He calls the bluff on Roger Fry for example, who in the early 1900s was forever earnestly proselytizing for Cézanne, while Sickert came out fighting, questioning everything including Cezanne. That’s very much Lucian’s style, too. His exaggerations and his scorn, and his general larking around in verbal form is something perhaps not to emulate but certainly to admire. Like Sickert, he liked to taunt received opinion.

Sickert’s technique, with the thickness of his painting method, also seems to be a precursor to Freud’s. Arguably, too, the documentary realism with which he painted his surroundings in Camden. Then I suppose there are the lifestyle habits of his artistic practice. Sickert seemed to have at least as many mistresses as he had studios, which recalls some of Freud’s romantic adventurism as well.

A side benefit of being a painter of people is that you enter this very close relationship, literally speaking. A portrait sitting is one-to-one, occasionally one to two or three and rarely more. It’s somewhat like going to one’s private doctor – exclusive, confidential and intimate in every sense. Lucian, like Sickert, had this rogue male aspect. It’s special to painters, I suppose, because painting a portrait is investigative really. The best portraits are the ones that are less clean or clear-cut, less obvious and more imaginative, even speculative in style, and therefore much more questioning of the personality that you are sitting in front of and working from.

Let’s talk about Constable. Freud certainly seemed very aware of his artistic lineage. You’ve remarked on the influence of the Flemish Old Masters for example on the young Freud. He never lost his Continental inflection, but by choosing this as one of the best Lucian Freud books – Memoirs of the Life of John Constable – are you positioning him in a lineage of great British painters? 

You might say that Freud and Constable were literally close. At the age of 16, Lucian went to a rather odd and eccentric art school in East Anglia run by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. Morris was a distinguished painter, but one who hadn’t much recognition since the 1920s, really. Freud attended around 1939-1942. This art school was in Dedham, in the heart of Constable country, the parishes Constable had been brought up in and where he lived and painted with this landscape as his chief subject. When he died, Constable’s closest painter friend CR Leslie rather hastily put together letters and anecdotes about Constable and bound them up in a book which had mezzotint illustrations by David Lucas, copies or versions of Constable’s work. This book, which was a vanity volume to begin with – Constable didn’t have the wider public that he got later on – shows the importance of illustrations of works of art in an artist biography. They are an essential element in the same way that, if you were writing about a general or a movie star, you’d visit libraries to gather press cuttings and articles. With a painter’s life, you keep looking at the works: they tell you most.

“Painting is a fundamentally straightforward practice”

In Freud’s case, as indeed was the case with Constable, the work was the man. The illustrations and the book itself had to be a mixture of the personal and the objective. Never more so than with Lucian. Indeed in 2002, he and I put on an exhibition of Constable (working with the British Council and the Louvre) in the Grand Palais in Paris, which was a kind of diplomatic reintroduction of Constable to the French public. It was my idea that Lucian should help choose it. We had often said that Constable was a great portrait painter, and it would be great wouldn’t it one day to put together an exhibition of his portraits as well as his landscapes and to mix them together? We did, and it was a success.

It was exciting to do, going through the works with Lucian, who even took a private plane trip from New York to Chicago to persuade the Art Institute of Chicago to lend Stoke-by-Nayland, one of the great last paintings for the show. So it was a collaboration, and I think Leslie’s Life of Constable therefore pre-reflects the relationship between me and Lucian over practical things, like which pictures to choose and how to present them. In my case, I was the one to do the actual hanging of them all, and when Lucian flew with a few friends over to Paris to look at the exhibition, he told me he congratulated himself on the installation, which of course he had nothing to do with.

Self-assured as always. I was able to find a very fine facsimile of the 1845 edition online.

As an innocent eight-year-old, I got my grandfather to give me for Christmas a colour reproduction of Constable’s The Leaping Horse. Lucian, decades later, said that this painting, of a boy triumphantly astride the sort of cart horse used for hauling barges, was very much a self-image of youthful Lucian. Whereas I now recall, at the age of about eight, imagining that I was that boy jumping over the low obstacle on the towpath near Dedham.

These are the ways that things just happen to link together. You can’t find connections such as these by going through archives only. Anyway, a lifetime later our exhibition Constable: le Choix de Lucian Freud was a great success in Paris largely on the grounds that Lucian’s name was up there on the banners. His American contemporary Jasper Johns, for one, envied him for getting the chance to curate, for once, and at the Grand Palais no less.

Ever a bit of professional rivalry in artistic circles…. That exhibit may have been an early example of the juxtaposition of contemporary artists with Old Masters, something that’s become a trend in curatorial circles in recent decades.

While I might slightly blench at the choice of pairing Andy Warhol with the likes of Ingres, say, it is a good way in. These juxtapositions show that all painters, and of course Warhol is no exception, are part an ongoing tradition. Each generation has to reinvent the need for being an artist and to interpret the roles, just as actors reinvent the roles of a dramatic tradition. This is something which goes right back to the 16th century and to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the idea of the artist as a kind of standard-bearer and inheritor of past art, as well as an initiator of what’s going to be admired or not admired in years beyond our lifetimes.

Your final selection among the best Lucian Freud books, Nollekens and his Times, was not easy to come by. At Five Books we are always keen on prompting our readers to seek out interesting and authoritative texts whether in print or out of print.  You’ve described this book as the rumbustious memoirs of a portrait bust maker. How does this book illuminate Freud? 

As I was halfway through my Lucian volumes, I was shown this book by another of Frank Auerbach’s sitters – you see, this is how things happen! – David Landau, who normally lives in Switzerland but comes back to London every now and again to sit for Auerbach as he has done for decades. He recommended this book to Frank as a really extraordinary, funny and observant book. Frank then passed it on to me, and I was completely charmed by the scurrilous, sardonic, sarcastic and farcical account of the life of this very eccentric, miserly, unhappily married person who made portrait busts of eminent people such as the bibulous politician Charles James Fox.

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It’s a splendid book, with none of the pieties of standard art biographies. What makes these so irritating to my mind, and to my eyes, is that they often see more intellectual substance and indeed more cunning in painting than is actually there. Painting is a fundamentally straightforward practice. If you’re making portrait busts like Nollekens did, it’s practically a nine-to-five occupation and not something to be larded in mysticism. Here is a splendid, scabrous book rather like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but even livelier with its focus on the perennial follies of the art world. Incidentally, Boswell’s work is one that I had shied away from over the years but, in this awful plague year and particularly since finishing my Lives of Lucian Freud, I’ve turned to and relished. Rather to my surprise, I found myself falling in with its persistence and the wonderful way in which Dr Johnson strolls and hobbles through the pages so memorably, when his actual writings were less than memorable. It’s the person that counts.

Do you find yourself with more time to paint now that the second volume has been published?

It’s good to get back to painting more consistently now. I think it’s quite important in a critic to be a practitioner as well. Otherwise the methods of working, particularly in painting, are simply mysterious not to say inexplicable. You don’t want literary explanations or rampant theory. You want hands-on explanations, understanding brushwork and the whole business of using paint. Lucian would come to my exhibitions and look around and every now and again and he’d say, ‘well, that’s a landscape you could walk around in’, which was approval. It was a bit excruciating watching him look at my paintings.

Who do you feel are the true heirs to Lucian Freud among painters or artists working today? Many would cite his influence on their technique. Who do you, as both a painter and a critic, feel achieves some of the qualities that Freud was striving for, the greater ruthlessness or, as you’ve described it, the intensification of reality that characterises his best work?

Well for intensification, I think Frank Auerbach particularly: a painter still working, who I’m personally close to and with whom I have enjoyed endless discussions over the years, which have been a great help with the Freud book. Also Christopher Bramham. Other painters who are not necessarily very well known. I’m a defrocked critic, basically, and don’t do art criticism any longer, to my great relief really! The people I know are the people—such as the painter Robert Dukes—I’ve taught with on-and-off at the Royal Drawing School over the last twenty years, who I think have infinite promise and accomplishment. Perhaps like Lucian, who until he was 50 didn’t command real media coverage. It’s good to work in obscurity for a while. Not too good for the bank balance necessarily, but it’s good for being able to continue. Me, I’m a critic that paints. It’s been that way around forever. Painting has risen up into focus again, and it’s been great to get back to it.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

October 8, 2020

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William Feaver

William Feaver

William Feaver is a painter, curator and author, and was the art critic for the Observer for 23 years. He is on the Academic Board of the Royal Drawing School where he also currently tutors. He curated Lucian Freud's 2002 retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002, and the 2012 exhibition of Freud’s drawings in London and New York. He has sat, weekly, for the artist Frank Auerbach since 2003.

William Feaver

William Feaver

William Feaver is a painter, curator and author, and was the art critic for the Observer for 23 years. He is on the Academic Board of the Royal Drawing School where he also currently tutors. He curated Lucian Freud's 2002 retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002, and the 2012 exhibition of Freud’s drawings in London and New York. He has sat, weekly, for the artist Frank Auerbach since 2003.