“He didn’t do dull,” says Geordie Greig of his friendship with the brilliant, mercurial painter Lucian Freud.
Ever since he was a young man at Eton, Greig, now the editor of The Mail on Sunday, had been obsessed with the paintings of Freud. He developed this passion after going with a school group to a Freud show at the Anthony d’Offay art gallery, where he was entranced by the 17 paintings he saw, which included the 1977-78 “Naked Man With Rat.” He began writing to Freud, but never received a reply until, many years later, as the literary editor of The Sunday Times, he sent him a postcard saying that he had an idea for the artist but that he had to tell him about it in person. He had received a large art book of Stanley Spencer’s nudes and wanted Freud to review it. This led to a meeting at 6:45 one morning at Freud’s studio and, eventually, many shared breakfasts at Clarke’s restaurant in Notting Hill.
Now Greig has written “Breakfast With Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In his first conversations with Freud, the latter was quite guarded, but he eventually loosened up. He says Freud told him, “‘Look, I’m very selfish. I have relationships if I want; if I don’t, I don’t.’ There was a terrific logic to his way of living, but it was on the understanding that he named the rules.” This held for both his friendships and his seemingly endless succession of lovers. He married two of them. He had a total of 14 children, almost all of whom he never lived with and rarely saw. He eventually painted his children, sometimes in the nude. They usually agreed to do this because it was one of the few ways they could be close to him or spend time with him.
“He never did anything that was predictable or formulaic or without a surprise,” says Greig. “He might touch on Ian Fleming in the Forties or Kate Moss at a fashion show in 2008. It might go from talking about poetry to gossip about anyone to a critique of Flaubert’s letters. He was an absolutely brilliant conversationalist.
“He had more poems in his head and could recite them than anyone I have ever known, from Goethe to sea shanties,” Greig adds. “He started out having to beg, borrow and steal money, but he ended up creating many fortunes. When Roman Abramovich sold the painting, 1995’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ for $34 million, it created a record for a living British painter. When Freud died at 88, he left an estate of 98 million pounds. His show at the National Portrait Gallery was the most popular portrait show ever.”
Freud was quite eccentric. “One of the things he always ate was a bar of nougat, which he would cut in slivers and hand out,” Greig says. “He often had it for breakfast, with a cup of tea. He had a terrible sweet tooth. He sometimes took up to three baths a day. He was constantly painting; he sometimes had three models on the go at different times in 24 hours. It was a life completely, utterly and self-confessedly selfish, to be an artist, to paint.”
Freud, a grandson of father-of-psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin but left Germany with his family in 1933 in order to escape the Nazis. They later became British citizens. The younger Freud proved a wunderkind at drawing, and his professional course seemed set from an early age. He went to Dartington Hall, Dane Court and then Bryanston, from which he was expelled. He later attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts briefly, then the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing. Before long, he found the first of his mentors, the poet Stephen Spender. New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought one of his paintings in the Forties. But for a long time, his reputation was mostly confined to a small circle in Great Britain.
Freud was very good-looking as a young man, and was notably successful with women. One of his most important romances was with Caroline Blackwood, a Guinness heiress who later became a writer and whom he married. “He fell for her completely,” says Greig. “ She was fun, wild, with a wicked sense of humor, brilliant and very beautiful in her day.” Another important love was Lorna Wishart, who was an older married woman when they met. “He was completely, maniacally obsessed with her when she left him,” Greig says.
One of his portrait subjects later in life was Moss, whom his daughter Bella introduced him to, and who was often late to sittings.
“He hated lateness,” Greig recalls. “He was always in a race against time to create great art. It really was a race against time, more and more, to try to find images. He forced himself to learn to paint, to make a memorable change in the language of art.”