Lucian: A portrait of the artist as a lifelong womaniser
As one of his offspring sues for a share of his estate, Julia Molony paints a picture of the famous artist who, despite having 500 lovers, often showed a cruel indifference
A tireless (and fertile) womaniser, Lucian Freud once fathered three children with three different women within the space of one year. Freud was as careless with his many children as he was meticulous in his work. He formally acknowledged 14 of them, though it’s believed he fathered up to 30. He refused to ever live with any of his offspring. The mundane realities of parenthood would have represented a concession to convention too far for the last great bohemian artist.
The children he recognised include the fashion designer Bella Freud and writer Esther Freud. But even among this sprawling extended family, relations were sometimes strained. Some of those who enjoyed the benediction of paternal acknowledgement from this titan of the art world learned it was no substitute for sustained involvement or emotional investment in them.
But Freud was not shackled to any sense of duty to anyone or anything, except his art. He was as cavalier and profligate regarding his progeny as he was with his many, many lovers — some were kept close, others treated as disposable.
Now, three years after the artist’s death, one of the ‘forgotten’ Freud children, Paul Freud, has come forward to claim his share of the multi-million pound fortune his father left behind. One of four children Lucian fathered with the artist Katherine McAdam, Paul had no contact with his famous father after his mother, tired of his relentless infidelity, left him in the mid-1960s and moved to a council flat. None of these children was mentioned in the will, but now Paul is seeking financial restitution for the abandonment.
Parenthood, it seemed, was regarded by Freud as little more than a side-effect of his formidable libido. Emotional ties of any kind were treated as being a great deal less important than his work. He often showed indifference that bordered on cruelty, but never made any apologies for it. “It is very straightforward,” he said, “as very simply all I ever really want to do is to paint. I am very selfish about it. I say it not as a boast but a fact. I have never tried to hide that.”
The grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Lucian was born into a prominent family in pre-war Berlin, one of three boys born to Ernst Freud, an architect, and heiress Lucie Brasch. Family life at the Freuds was privileged if a little austere — the children were largely raised by the family’s staff — a litany of governesses and cooks.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Freuds fled Berlin, securing a home in London after an associate made a petition on their behalf to the royal family. As a Jewish family, they had already borne witness to violence in Germany — a cousin of theirs had been murdered by the Nazis.
In London, the young Freuds attended progressive schools, but the upheaval in their lives had done little to forge lasting bonds between the three siblings — the boys were not close. Lucian, who wielded candour like a weapon, later said: “I was never friendly with either of my brothers.” He said he thought Stephen “was incredibly dreary, pompous, timid”.
His brother Clement was not spared. “I always despised [him] because he was a liar, and I minded it. If you liked someone, you wouldn’t have cared if they were a liar or not. He’s dead now. Always was, actually,” Freud said.
Nor was he close to his father, who did not encourage his talent for art. When he was young, Lucian remembered his father being “absolutely horrible about my work very early on. I thought: ‘What a b*****d.’”
His relationship with his mother was, if closer, similarly vexed. It was, in fact, uncomfortably close. And Lucian’s intensely private, guarded nature seems to have evolved in part as a means by which to evade her suffocating attention.
“I felt oppressed by her because she was very instinctive and I’ve always been very secretive. It was hard to keep things from her. The idea of her knowing what I was doing or thinking bothered me a great deal,” he said.
He responded to the scrutiny by cutting off all contact with her for many years. Only when she was crippled with depression and recovering from a suicide attempt did he discover her to be sufficiently subdued to bear, and brokered a kind of peace. He met her daily for breakfast, and painted her portrait nine times.
Freud’s inherent iconoclasm and disdain for moral sanctimony found expression from an early age. In 1938 he was expelled from school after apparently dropping his trousers on a Bournemouth street. But even as a small boy he showed early promise as an artist.
At 17, he sold his first work, a self-portrait, to a magazine. He abandoned his course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts after just a year, moving to East Anglia where he studied under Cedric Morris.
Even in the early years of his career, before he found critical acclaim and international fame, he seemed to seek out drama and turmoil as a kind of creative stimulus. He was an inveterate gambler, once racking up a debt of half a million pounds to the Kray brothers, and prone to brawling. He moved deftly between squalor and splendour, dividing his social life between London nobility and the most notorious figures of the city’s shadowy underworld.
His early romantic life, too, was no less colourful. In his youth, he threw himself headlong into sexual affairs with both men and women. When he was 19, he began a tumultuous affair with Lorna Wishart, a married woman 11 years his senior.
Beautiful, liberated and free-spirited, Lorna was a doctor’s daughter who had married at age 16. But family life had failed to suppress her unconventional nature, and her indulgent husband, Ernest Wishart, a renegade publisher and avowed communist, seemed to tolerate her sexual adventurism and colourful social life at the centre of London’s arts and literary scenes.
When Lorna met the teenage Freud, she
was (though still married) established as the mistress of Laurie Lee, who was already well-known as the acclaimed author of Cider With Rosie. She had even given birth to a daughter by Lee, who was raised alongside her other children. According to their daughter Yasmine, Lorna was a born muse, “savage, wild, romantic and without guilt”.
For some time, she sustained affairs with Laurie Lee and Freud simultaneously, but both were too intense and obsessive in character for this to be workable for long. Lee, upon discovering his rival, wrote in his diary of Freud, “This mad unpleasant youth appeals to a sort of craving she has for corruption. She would like to be free of it but can’t.
“Meanwhile, she says she loves me … Oh, I can’t express the absolute depths to which this has brought me. She goes to him when I long for her, and finds him in bed with a boyfriend. She is disgusted but she still goes to see him.”
Eventually, Freud and Lee ended up coming to blows over Lorna, getting embroiled in a physical fight at a bus stop in Piccadilly. But though Lee won the brawl, Freud was to be the ultimate victor. Shortly after, Lorna broke up with the writer and seemed to commit further to Lucian, spending weekdays with him in his flat and returning to her husband and family in Sussex at the weekends.
Lucian, however, even at that young age, had already developed his wandering eye. When Lorna discovered love letters from a well-known actress addressed to him she became hysterical and ended the affair, pitching Lucian into despair.
He pursued her down to Sussex and found her at the home she shared with her husband. Despite a number of dramatic gestures, including firing a gun into the sky in their garden and riding up to the house on a white horse, Lorna was resolute.
She never returned to him, but instead converted to Catholicism and lived out the rest of her life in obscurity. She burned the many letters she had received from her two famous lovers, so that their contents would always remain private.
Lucian, however, took longer to shake off her influence. Soon after, in a move that echoed the obsessive loves of WB Yeats, he married Lorna’s niece Kitty Garman in 1948. The couple split four years later, having had two daughters together.
It was not the first time his sexual conquests would span several generations of the same family. As a young man, he had an affair with the painter Janetta Wooley. Forty years later, he seduced her daughter Rose.
Freud seemed to require constant sexual activity in order to work. Sometimes, he fulfilled the classic cliché and seduced his models, otherwise he recruited women from elsewhere to satisfy his appetites. Raymond Jones, one of his models, remembers of his time sitting for him, that their work was periodically interrupted by the arrival of a woman.
She and Lucien would slip into the bathroom briefly for noisy sex, while he waited. Before long, the woman would leave and the artist would return, refreshed, having bathed and sometimes buck naked, to his seat before the easel.
The Greek Sculptor Vassilakis Takis, a friend of Freud, estimated that he had at least 500 lovers. “I think he needed to dominate women in certain ways … [he was] almost animal. He went with his feelings, took what he wanted. That was his strength. You could also physically see it in his actions — eating with his fingers, tearing birds to pieces on his plate. The usual social rules that we apply to ourselves, I don’t think he ever thought applied to him.”
Freud’s paintings, the artist said, were autobiographical — a forensic rendering of some emotional truth between artist and subject. He claimed only once to have painted someone he didn’t like, converting his real-life antipathy for Bernard Breslauer, a book dealer, onto the canvas by making him he said, “even more repulsive than he actually was”.
He painted with relentless and often unflattering directness, even when his subjects were famous models. He became friends with Kate Moss after she posed for him while eight months pregnant. He was drawn to her reckless, non-conformist nature and they used to go to nightclubs together. They made an odd pairing, the world-famous model and the grizzled old buzzard artist, still louche but now in his 80s.
But, as in his personal life, it was the way he related to his children through his art that attracted the most gossip and controversy. He persuaded six of his daughters and one of his sons to pose naked for him. Annie Freud, who was 14 at the time, remembers it as being, at the very least, an unsettling experience.
“I remember having long hair and wanting my hair to cover my nipples, and Dad would lean forward and move my hair away with his paintbrush,’ she said. ‘It was full exposure. The issue was about someone having dominion over you. It was all quite shocking.
“There was some hurt done, not intentionally, and it was nothing to do with sex — perhaps it was more an intrusion into innocence.
“It was all very well for Dad to say it was all right. No one else felt that it was.”
Freud was, according to his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood — to whom he was married for five years in the 1950s — “not the sort of man one could have children with”. Unsurprisingly, they had none together.
But to be a child of Lucian Freud, it may be hard to know which was more troublesome: to live, like Paul Freud, far beyond the vulpine glare of his attention; or, like Annie Freud, to squirm beneath it.