Art critic Martyn Gayford recalls a good friend and a great painter.
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British artist Lucian FreudPhoto: EPA
11:04PM BST 21 Jul 2011
Talking about his fellow artist Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud once said to me, “He was wise in his way”.
Exactly the same was true of Lucian. His philosophy of life was not suited to everybody; indeed, it was probably only well adapted to one individual: himself. But nonetheless the way he saw things was endlessly enlightening. “Lucian”, his life-long friend John Richardson once said to me, “is a bit addictive”.
To the world he was a great painter, one of the greatest I believe of the last seventy years. His friends also knew him as a remarkable conversationalist, with a way of observing, and a turn of phrase (as impossible to reproduce as his voice with its amalgam of mid century RP English with an undercurrent of Middle European, especially in the rolled ‘R’s).
With Lucian, talk might turn to art – about which he had bracing views (an example of the latter being that someone should write a book about what a ghastly painter Leonardo da Vinci was). Or the talk might just as easily be about people or places Lucian had known. In the course of a long life he had known an almost infinite number of those, famous, infamous – in the case of the Kray brothers – and otherwise. His accounts of the celebrated could be epigrammatically incisive. On Ian Fleming, with whom he had clashed in the 1950s, “He wasn’t nasty, he was ghastly; he didn’t have friends, he had golfing friends.”
He could be just as insightful about anybody he met, and whole nationalities. On his only visit to the United States, he stepped into a taxi at the airport which immediately got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Any London cabbie, he pointed out would have started effing and blinding at this point. His American driver, however, remarked, “Gee, isn’t this a great country: all these people have cars”.
Fellow diners in restaurants – the Wolseley was a favourite towards the end of his life – sometimes quailed under an intense stare. If they had the impression they were being studied as potential sitters, they were quite correct. Lucian was interested in a huge number of people he encountered, almost everyone except the nondescript. He was essentially an observer; that after all was the basis of his art.
Although Lucian was a brilliant talker, and in many ways fearless, he was also quite shy. He did not simply hold forth - with him a conversation had to be a two-way affair. He preferred to respond to what others said, though if it was banal, he would quickly begin to wish he was somewhere else. He told me once of a woman he’s met, “She said that basically everyone is nice, you just have to understand them, which made me feel rather tired.” This fastidiousness was a vital part of his armoury as a painter. He judged his own work with rigorous severity.
Despite being in the public eye for most of his life, and very famous indeed in his later years, Lucian was remarkable successful in not living like a celebrity. He disliked, for example, restaurants where he was greeted with a flourish. He wanted to be treated normally. Talking of a fellow artist and friend who left London to avoid the pressures of fame, Lucian mused, “He’s not very good at being private then”. Lucian himself, in contrast, was. Though occasionally bothered by paparazzi and others, he was successful in placing a sort of psychic force field around himself: the equivalent in body language of a “Do Not Disturb” notice.
Intimacy, privacy, and the sort of truth-telling that can occur in such circumstances were the basis of his art (If a magazine photographed my house, he once remarked to me, I feel I would have to move). This aversion to the limelight had always gone along in his life with a taste for risk and nightlife. He was a heavy gambler until late on when, he found that he had become so rich there was no thrill left in it any more.
Lucian certainly had a fairly wild youth (he remembered waking upside down once with his head down a lavatory at the Gargoyle Club, a drinking club of the 40s), then by conventional standards a reckless middle age. One day, when he was well into his 70s, he lost nearly a million pounds on series of horse races while we were having lunch.
Almost the last time I saw him, earlier this year, we were talking about bohemian Soho on the 50s. I ventured that, though it seemed very glamorous to read about, no doubt it had been less so in reality. “Oh no”, he replied, “I always thought it was very glamorous” Then he went on, “It was marvellous being taken seriously for behaving ridiculously”.
His wildness, even in youth, was only half the truth. Lucian was also, as he put it, “very steady in his way”. He told the story of Augustus John’s son, Caspar who in later life became an Admiral Someone once remarked to him on the contrast between his career in the navy, and the rackety bohemian milieu of his father. “To be a painter”, answered Admiral John, “requires enormous discipline”. That was true of Lucian too: the astonishing determination needed to carry on painting, decade after decade, through every sort of discouragement, all day every day. His whole career was a tremendous gamble, on his own talent.
Not surprisingly, he told me on afternoon, he had little time for insurance. “I feel it is absolutely awful, all based on fear, taking money away from people because they are afraid of what might happen. But when the feared thing does happen you can be sure something called the small print will come into effect.”
From insurance, he moved to matters more profound. “The notion of the afterlife is much the same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just an hors d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had a lovely time.” His has been indeed an epic life, full of achievement. I shall miss him - his wit, his presence, his intelligence – tremendously.