Lover, Fighter, Gambler, Monster, Genius: Lucian Freud Remembered

Exclusively for Esquire, the artist's biographer remembers 'the most dangerous man in the world.'

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I can vividly remember the moment when I first thought that Lucian Freud must be the most dangerous man in the world. I was 17 and on a school trip to a small gallery in Mayfair. His paintings were displayed in a claustrophobically small room that resonated with tension. There was a naked man with a rat on his thigh, in frightening proximity to his genitals. Who was he? Why was he naked? What the hell was a rat doing there? Equally gripping was a photograph of Freud in the catalogue. His heavy boots had no laces. The disheveled shirt, check trousers and scarf gave him a bovver-boy toughness; he looked halfway between a pastry chef and a bare-knuckle fighter, eyes startled, oozing a sense of raw power.

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This was 1978 and to me it made punk seem pallid. I was determined to find out more about this rebel who had the secretiveness of a recluse but – even then – the reputation that no girl was safe with him. He had already fathered more children than anyone could guess at (the official count was eventually 15 acknowledged, some estimated there were as many as 20 more unacknowledged) and he was mysterious, never giving press interviews, never commenting, never explaining, always in the shadows. He was hostile to any approaches. His nudes of women at that time were exposing, sexual and shocking. But what was unquestioned in my mind was that he was a genius. His pictures were compelling, obsessive and commanding.

He seemed as dominant and outside of any rules or set of ethics as anyone since Jean Genet or Dylan Thomas. And yet exactly what he was like no one seemed to know. The Byronic cliché – mad, bad and dangerous to know – was bandied about as a label. This grandson of Sigmund Freud was ferrety and wry in appearance, beguiling and yet unswerving in his dedication to his art. He also appeared to paint 24 hours a day. He yielded to no one. He never did anything he did not want to do. He was untamable. I was hooked.

The search for Lucian became a leitmotif of my life. It was a long journey, slowly stalking him to find out who exactly he was. It took me 25 years from that school trip to finally meet him. Later I became part of a small circle who saw him regularly, for breakfast at Clarke's in Kensington. Hence the title of my new book, Breakfast With Lucian.

He was ruthless, selfish and spell-bindingly charismatic. He was also generous, funny, original and compelling. A brilliant gossip. An uncompromising critic. Always trying to create a new language in art, to reinvent his portraits.  He remained resolute on his path to do what he wanted: his one consistent was to paint, and never to be dull.

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The route to Lucian was not easy. I wrote dozens of letters and got no reply. These started when I was a teenager. It was a quest that sprang out of my obsession with his art. His pictures sent a chill down the spine. They grabbed life, his life, and yet he yielded not a single piece of information about who he was painting. The names of his sitters were almost never in the titles. The rumours and whispers were always beaten by the truth. He was fearless, even in his early eighties getting into a fight in his local supermarket in Notting Hill. He hung out with gangsters in the Sixties, borrowing money from the Krays. It was an offer he wished he had refused as they were not exactly willing to wait to get their cash back. He was occasionally on the run from the police. He had gambling debts running into the millions. And always he was on the hunt for women, to paint, to seduce, to be part of his life. In one year, 1963, three different women became pregnant by him. He was led by a legendary libido. He dated Greta Garbo. He married the most glamorous Guinness heiress. He sometimes had five girlfriends at one time. It was not a question of not being safe in taxis. He was a man with no rules. He was never less than candid about his behavior. He would brazenly say he was selfish. He made no apologies for it. In his view all artists were and had to be selfish. He was not scared by anyone and could not be forced to do anything against his will.

When he was 85 I went round to drop something off at his house in Notting Hill. A12-inch blade was thrust out in the narrow opening of the door. He wanted to know who was there. I said it was me delivering him a paper. I said for God's sake don't stab me. It will make a terrible headline: Editor of London Evening Standard stabbed by artist. I laughed, then he laughed but we both experienced his feckless disregard for using violence yet also enjoyed the comic absurdity of our encounter.

Lucian was never easily defined. He dressed like a scarecrow but he was also dandy. He wore suits from Huntsman, the smartest tailor on Savile Row. He combined this with aggressive black leather boots speckled with paint. He had a sort of messy chic. Just as Charlie Chaplin made the black suit his moniker, so Lucian invented scruffy-chic. It was all about being outside the rules but knowing the rules. He could be beyond rude to those he did not like. He could chill a room with a silence. But his charm was mesmerising. No one could be as persuasive, whether by threats or through simple charm.

Why was he so dangerous? It was because he refused to bow to anyone. He gave virtually no one his telephone number. He would go out of his way to make sure no one second-guessed what he was doing. His life was juggled with a dangerous precision. One model suddenly saw a naked breast appear on another canvas in his studio and realised that he was seeing someone else. He never saw it was anyone else's business who he saw or when he saw them.
 
In some ways Lucian was the Forrest Gump of the 20th century. He was in a George Formby movie; he hung out with Francis Bacon and was painted 19 times by him; Noel Coward wrote verse about him; Picasso made more than a pass at his second wife. 

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Born in 1922 his life was always an epic journey, escaping from Nazi Germany in 1933, leaving behind certain death. He was immediately seen as a wunderkind by the cultural establishment. Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender were dazzled by his looks. He was taken up by social grandees and whirled into a dizzying world that he partly loved and partly rejected. He always lived a high-low life. He hung out with criminals in Paddington while spending the weekend at Badminton with the Duke of Beaufort. He was never possible to pigeonhole. His life was sometimes that of a man on the run, dodging creditors, bookies who were owed hundreds of thousands of pounds. When he was in need of cash he painted Baron Heini Thyssen, then the richest man in the world. He achieved the greatest price of any British Living painter when Roman Abramovitch paid £17.2m for his portrait of an extremely large, dole office employee. He would be out dancing until 3am with Kate Moss. He knew Auden and Giacometti. He arrived in London a penniless refugee but left £96 million in his will, the richest artist ever to have left such an amount.

He lived in a house with a mixture of beautiful 18th-century furniture but also had elements of gilded squalor with old rags and paint smears. He was a lone wolf who had one quarry: his art. When he died his exhibition of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery was the most popular show ever seen there. He even outshone his grandfather.

When I first met him in his studio in Holland Park it was 7am and I had sent him a note saying I had a brilliant idea and that I could only tell him face to face. I relied upon his curiosity and he finally called me. This was after many years and dozens of letters. His gaze was eagle-like, his eyes boring with an intensity that I had only seen twice before, in Samuel Beckett and Ted Hughes. It had an animal sensitivity, as if he could see things that no one else could. It was an eye taking aim. His voice was soft with a slight German lilt. He was polite, inviting and charming. The man of provocation and privacy seemed to evaporate but it was also like being with something wild. One wrong move and he would close the door or bolt or I would be shut out. We talked and somehow we clicked. He was never without a strong view. He cursed Ian Fleming for thinking he had slept with Fleming's wife (he hadn't). He berated Stephen Spender for "stealing" a picture. He talked of models and lovers no longer being part of his life when he moved on from them, ie, he had finished painting them. My quest took me all over Europe and to America to interview girlfriends, muses, children, enemies, bookies, high society and low lifers who all had extraordinary tales to tell of life with Lucian. It was always a man who had one singular aim: to be with whom he wanted, to do what he wanted with them and always to paint. It was a dangerous path for those who got in that way but it was his way to greatness.

Breakfast with Lucian (Jonathan Cape, £25) is out now. Geordie Greig is Editor of The Mail on Sunday.

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