30 June, 2014Issue 25.5BiographyLiterature

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Getting Away With It

Kit Coldstream

Greig
Geordie Greig
Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist
Jonathan Cape, 2014
£25.00 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN 978-0224096850


While we await what Alexandra Pringle of Bloomsbury has declared will be “the book on Lucian Freud”—William Feaver’s full-length biography due out in 2015—Geordie Greig’s Breakfast With Lucian might be said to offer something of an appetite-whettener, a light but gossip-laden read that is reminiscent of a lazy morning spent poring over the papers. That the author is editor of The Mail on Sunday and former editor of London Evening Standard and The Tatler is not insignificant; the relish for small talk, chit-chat, and the scandalous anecdotal detail is evident from the first pages, where the “Grand Old Man of British Art” is described entering his restaurant of choice by the back door in a “crumpled but expensive” shirt and cashmere by Issey Miyake.

The setting is Clarke’s, a “small upmarket restaurant” frequented by “top brass” from the Beeb—Maggie Smith and Salman Rushdie are among the names dropped—and such eminent customers as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Shabby chic and studied dishevelment jostle with “discernment and taste” in this enticing prelude to what is not so much a portrait of the artist as a scrap book of his conquests, both amorous and artistic, with the emphasis falling heavily on the former. Freud’s appetite for sex, and his utter disregard for the sensibilities of his sitters, family, and lovers, is the overriding theme of the book as well as its dominant impression. Breakfast at Clarke’s, where many of Greig’s conversations with the painter took place over a ten-year period, was precious downtime for Freud, whose never-ending schedule had him “working round-the-clock” … or, “as one wag put it, ’round the cock,’ since his libido never appeared to fade”.

The book is divided into fourteen short, vivid, and richly illustrated chapters, which, once the stage is set (and the table cleared of crumbs—Lucian’s favourites included pain aux raisins and scrambled eggs on toast), move chronologically rather than thematically through the painter’s life. From his prosperous middle-class beginnings in Berlin in 1922, via the family’s timely move to England in 1933, to his death in London in 2011, the grandson of the “most prominent Jew in Europe” is scrutinised in uncomfortably intimate detail. Intertwined with anecdotes, interviews, and sufficient hard biographical data to balance the admittedly “personal perspective” announced in the preface, the story of Greig’s fascination with and pursuit of the artist runs throughout the work.

From the early chapter, “Stalking”, which traces the source of Greig’s obsession to a 1970s Eton school trip, when he first encountered Freud’s paintings at the Anthony d’Offay gallery, to late visits to Freud’s home with his young son Jasper (who lies affectionately close to the bedridden artist while the latter “playfully strokes his hair”), the writer’s relationship with his subject is expository, confessional, and only slightly embarrassing. Structurally, the intertwining of the two narrative threads is an interesting contrapuntal device and, when the thrill of the chase is at its height, the effect is positively fugal. The author’s brother, Louis, moves into a large Holland Park Villa, the top floor of which is, coincidentally, the painter’s studio. Kathryn, the author’s wife, shares a hymn-sheet with Lucian at the Rothschild’s Christmas dinner in Buckinghamshire, Freud “belting out” “Good King Wenceslas” as lustily as any Christian.

Greig is disarmingly upfront about the early rejections he suffered at the hands of his subject, who eluded interview for two years, shunned publicity, and was private to the point of paranoia. It took him over two decades of persistent wooing to meet Freud face to face, and be granted an audience (at Clarke’s, at breakfast) with the great painter, even though the prospect of such a meeting made the latter “feel sick”, as he warned the then editor of Tatler in advance. Freud was wary and defensive, once opening the door to his flat only a few of inches and pointing a ten-inch serrated knife at Greig, menacingly asking “‘what do you want?'” When the author replied, “‘it’s me, Geordie. Put that knife down'” and added: “‘Lunatic Artist Stabs Editor of Evening Standard’ is not a good way to be remembered'”, Freud replied “I can think of worse ways” and invited him in for a cup of tea. He changed his telephone number four times a year, keeping his own children in the dark about his movements and even about each other’s existence.

Necessarily, a substantial part of the book is given over to accounts of Freud’s many, often simultaneous, relationships. Women and painting were inextricably linked in this irrepressible life, in which little evidence of inhibition or suppression can be detected (Greig, to his credit, soft-pedals any “psychological” interpretations, and resists facile conclusions based on Freud’s distinguished ancestry). Two family trees at the back of the book—one for Freud’s immediate forbears, and offspring by his first wife, the other for his children by five other women—show only the tip of the iceberg. “Lovers” as they are described throughout, run well into the three figures, one estimate coming in close to 500. The accounts are, of course, fascinating, and one is drawn in and absorbed almost against one’s will. The roll-call is compelling, from Lorna Wishart, the “dark eyed temptress” who “was more than a match for him” and broke his heart at 22, to the countless teenagers, beauties, and heiresses who scatter the pages of Greig’s book.

Alongside the staggering regularity and virtuosity of his sexual conquests, there are those other testimonies to Freud’s taste for danger, risk, and competition—the gambling, violence, and litigiousness. There are car chases, back-street punch-ups, and brushes with the police, as well as the frequent scenes of eye-popping verbal abuse. Yet, Greig tells us, the charm and charisma of the man were such that “all his life he got away with it”. Elsewhere he elaborates that “few were immune to his power of seduction on some level”. The fourteen acknowledged offspring by several different women all complain bitterly of his absenteeism and yet seem as passionately devoted to him as any of his admirers. Freud, who insisted that his success was the result of uncompromising, lifelong selfishness, was clearly able to inspire uncritical adoration in those around him.

The most persuasive chapter of this intensely personal portrait is, not surprisingly, the last, where scores of lovers, friends, and offspring emerge from the woodwork to pay testimony to an exceptional life in a funeral presided over by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Like so much else in Freud’s life, this final flourish smacks of the unlikely (he had asked for his body to be thrown in the canal in a bag)—as a thoroughly secular and irreverent Jew, his relationship with Williams is accidental. Freud’s much younger partner in the 1980s, Celia Paul, is not only mother of his youngest child, Frank (b 1984), but also the sister of Jane Williams, wife of the Archbishop.

Throughout his life, Freud had maintained an improbable juggling-act of relationships, frequently risking indignation and skirting close to incest. For all the roguishness of the man, however, it was impossible to be unmoved by Greig’s evocation of the empty table at the back of Clarke’s restaurant on the morning after his death: “an empty stage through the window. The white cloth was bare, his chair unfilled”. Further tear-jerkers include the ceremonial laying of a black tablecloth (with a single candle) on his favourite table at the Wolseley, in Piccadilly, and the consequent turning of heads which, that evening, included Lady Antonia Fraser and Victoria Rothschild, as well as David Gilmour, guitarist from Pink Floyd. “There was an ecclesiastical hush, tangible sadness around the … single flickering flame”. Greig certainly knows how to draw a response.

The book suffers from the occasional inaccuracy, not only the implicit and very common confusion of the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the Virgin Birth, but also such blatant errors as the misspelling of Damian Hirst’s name as Hurst (spellt correctly in the index). Its style is somewhat casual, with a tendency towards the sensational or the cinematic cliché. “Caroline is radiant, seemingly naked between the sheets, with honey-blonde hair and enormous, forget-me-not eyes”. Greig is speaking here of the painter’s second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood—an example of his taste for aristocratic women and the high life (as evidenced by his love of Wolseley’s). More decadent examples of Freud’s love of luxury include his daily feeding of a friend’s pet rat with Veuve Clicquot (mixed with sleeping tablets) in order to sedate it into sitting for him, in the hand of Raymond Jones, in Naked man With Rat (1977-8).

The most striking omission of this otherwise intricately detailed study of an extraordinary man is the lack of substantial treatment of his painting style or methods. Given that it was painting that drove Lucian’s life (admittedly, alongside sex: “He turns sex into art and art into sex, the physical manifestation of his life expressed through paint”, according to John Richardson), Breakfast With Lucian does leave one hungry for something more substantial. The tidbits of gossip are scintillating and the insights into what must surely be a form of genius are engrossing—I admit, I could hardly put the book down, for sheer curiosity—but never goes quite beyond the appetising, or seductive.

Granted, Greig does introduce the reader into the world of Freud’s studio, with its famous paint-spattered wall (which served as an extension of his palette) and not only to the models and assistants but also to the fellow-painters in his life. Friendships with David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Francis Bacon are detailed and dealt with sensitively. Hockney comes across as a good sport, and Auerbach as one of the most level-headed and loyal of his lifelong friends, while Bacon seems as complicated and temperamental a character as Freud himself. The rivalry between the two men and the eventual disintegration of their initially close, if platonic relationship, is powerfully conveyed. But the emphasis is always on the relational and anecdotal, and is never quite analytical enough of the painter’s vision and output to satisfy this reader.

While Breakfast With Lucian may be an ideal introduction to a personality the further study of whom would repay on many levels, as a life-study it reads as rather underweight. The explicit styling of the book as a portrait, however, is disarming and pleasingly multivalent. Greig’s portrait of the artist is an adventurous and cleverly constructed volume that draws on a wide range of original documentation and interview material. If it errs on the side of the sensational at times, it does so on impeccable authority. The fascination of Greig’s subject-matter and the liveliness of his presentation make of this a compelling read. The author, like the artist, ultimately gets away with it.

Kit Coldstream is a teacher and musician living and working in Oxford. She has studied music, theology, and creative writing—in Paris, at Oxford, and at UEA respectively.