Six years ago the 88-year-old, indefatigable portrait painter Lucian Freud did an uncharacteristic thing. He died, and in the wake of this a number of strange and absorbing books about his art and life suddenly appeared. Because of the artist’s acute sensitivity, even hostility, towards critics and their craft, these observers had sensibly bided their time. His passing was like the moment when children are told that the dragon is dead and it’s safe to come out.
I had neither the skill nor the wish to add my own observations on his unsparing studies of the human form and face, but I did find myself thinking that such a turbulent, gifted, obsessive life might be a fine subject for a play. I even got as far as roughing out a series of scenes involving friends and peers such as Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Frank Auerbach. I imagined them carousing and falling out (as Freud did with Bacon) in the ragged glory of the now vanished Colony Room in Soho, run by the foul-mouthed matron figure of its proprietor Muriel Belcher.
It wasn’t to be, and frankly, thank goodness. Somehow, over time, all the others fell away and left me with Freud by himself. For all his spectacular social and sexual promiscuity, he often craved no other company than his own. Indeed, one of his first utterances as a small boy in his birthplace of Berlin was apparently “Ich will allein sein” (I want to be alone). No coincidence then that he became a close friend and dancing partner of the most famous speaker of those words, Greta Garbo. He delighted in going with her to louche clubs where the “queer tarts” (his words) were all dressed up like Garbo, and then in he would come with the woman herself on his arm.
To my mind, the stage Freud would at least need a sitter to allow dialogue to occur. In this I was right and wrong, as I found over the course of writing what has become Looking at Lucian, my new one-man play, which has just opened at the Ustinov Studio in Bath.
My interest in Freud was as untutored as it was longstanding. More than forty years ago, when I started work on a local paper in Kensington, I would spot him regularly in the streets of Paddington and Notting Hill. Sometimes he would be driving along in his Bentley, a rather scuffed aristo of a car, slaloming gently without too much concern for the activity in the oncoming lane.
At other times he would be a pedestrian, just another waiting on the pavement at the busy junction at the top of Church Street, but with a rather flitting, unworldly presence. An exotic fish, briefly snapped in profile, all the more fascinating for being the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. In social terms, Freud was, through his own planning, mobile to the point of homelessness, dining in the piles of country landowners and running up hairy gambling debts with the Kray brothers.
Even then, just after the great tarmac slice of the Westway had carved a passage through the roofscape of North Kensington and just before Grenfell Tower and its neighbouring blocks were going up by Latimer Road, the borough was a thing of two halves. In the south, art and antique dealers, embassy buildings, garden squares; in the north, flaking Victorian terraces, memories of race riots and Rachmanism, with barely a hint of what would later come about in the ascendancies of Richard Curtis and David Cameron.
In the postwar years Freud had been like some human counterpart to this duality, shifting his studio from one condemned building to another, acting as a suitably posh fence for the stolen goods of his neighbours, shooting rats for sparrowhawk fodder on the dark banks of the Grand Union Canal, and dining up west in the evening.
Later, when I was working for The Times, I did think what a fascinating interviewee he would be. I naively reckoned that one way of arranging this would be to try to sit for him, unaware that this might involve a series of long and quite gruelling sittings, possibly spanning a year.
When it came to the paying of attention, no portrait painter was more extravagant than he, whether his subject was a royal or a rogue (although funnily enough he showed no interest in capturing my likeness). The process of looking at the person before him possessed him utterly, through the long day-shifts, night-shifts and decades of his 65-year career. By the last and lucrative phase of his life, a dramatic final act if ever there was one, he was widely regarded as one of the finest figurative painters of his epoch. He still is.
When curiosity travelled the other way, and when it was of a private or personal nature, his anger could flare instantly and alarmingly. One journalist, not me, who had the temerity to ask him for an interview, was told that the very idea made him feel sick. His handwritten response to Lynn Barber’s request concluded with a firm indication that he had no wish “to be shat on by a stranger”. If someone offended him with a chance word or deed, he was liable to punch them in the face, even when he was in his eighties.
Fortunately enough people had run that gauntlet and come out able to tell tales. Some of the studies of him that appeared during his lifetime were, and remain, invaluable; notably the critical volumes by Lawrence Gowing and William Feaver, even though they focused on the work more than the rackety but triumphant life from which the images emerged.
Since his death there have been some terrific, and to me, invaluable accounts — admiring, perplexed, scary — from a variety of hands: his devoted assistant David Dawson; a sitter’s chronicle by the critic Martin Gayford; an extraordinary campaign of befriending by Geordie Greig, now editor of the Mail on Sunday. I was lucky to have had these source materials; also now to be seeing Henry Goodman portraying Freud on stage. Since I had watched his Arturo Ui, his Shylock, his Sigmund Freud and many more over the years, he was my wish list of one for the role.
Of course I am not suggesting that Freud was unique in embodying serious extremes, just that his own apparent contradictions were so exceptionally vivid: hugely compassionate, inexplicably callous to lovers and friends; poor as a towpath rat, rich as a CEO, leaving an estate of more than £90 million; a father capable of great devotion and massive neglect. Soho flâneur, driven workaholic; Jewish migrant from Thirties Berlin, English toff; iron-willed, hooked (till he was rich) on the horses; a Freud with no great interest in Freudianism spending his professional time in the most intense transactions, one-to-one.
One of his sitters, Celia Paul, with whom Freud had a son, Frank, described his pitiless scrutiny as “excruciating”. “I cried most of the time,” she said. He was a robustly heterosexual frequenter of gay clubs, a party-charming raconteur and surly loner.
And so on, to the grave and beyond. His funeral, a very private affair, for a life apparently untouched by religious faith, was presided over by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Top connections to the end — Paul is Dr Rowan Williams’s sister-in-law. You can see why, as a subject, Freud is irresistible.
When I sat down two years ago to make myself write Looking at Lucian and to embody the person I have been trying to describe here, he was posthumously resistant. You would expect nothing less. At first I tried to get him talking to his sitter. They were engaged in the, well, foreplay (an appropriate word for a man for whom painting was often bound up with sex) of what was going to be a long old slog. How was she going to keep her head at this angle, her leg in that position, for months on end?
Pretty soon I could hear him say brusquely: “This isn’t working.” His language was saltier than that, but then as Hockney found out the hard way, Freud himself was the world’s least patient sitter.
Then, to my surprise, I could see him turn through 90 degrees to face me. His sitter had somehow vanished. Perhaps he wanted, Garbo-like, to be alone. And yet he looked as if he was poised to paint me. And to start talking. He had his brush in his hand and was starting to focus hard.
He and his work are, for obvious reasons, by no means everyone’s cup of tea. But there his people are, a seemingly random gallery of passers-through laid bare, even the fully clothed ones, by that obsessive application of time and paint to reach truth. Perhaps this is the most sublime, and enduring, of all the paradoxes — the exposure of what lies beneath the surface brought to light by covering upon covering. Paint as the storage of study. If I can excavate my way to just a fraction of such truth in this portrait of him I’ve created, I will be delighted.