The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth: rich and elaborate biography

William Feaver draws on hours of interviews to chart details of painter’s life before fame

 Lucian Freud with Brendan Behan in a Dublin street: Youth explores Freud’s life up to the late 1960s. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty

Lucian Freud with Brendan Behan in a Dublin street: Youth explores Freud’s life up to the late 1960s. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty

William Feaver begins his intricate, densely textured biography with a remark made to him by the critic David Sylvester in 1995. Lucian Freud wasn’t, Sylvester said, “a born painter . . . [he] had applied himself to the art of painting”, later elaborating his point in an article in the Guardian. When he read it, Feaver reports, Freud laughed. Like most critics and curators early on, including John Berger, Sylvester did not really get Freud and rushed to erroneous judgment, but he had a point. As a painter Freud lacked natural facility and an instinct for or interest in composition. The former he learned to transcend, brilliantly; he remained indifferent about the latter.

The first of two projected volumes, Youth charts Freud’s life up to the late 1960s, just prior to his eventual fame. Born in Berlin in 1922, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, he had a privileged childhood (his father was an architect). In 1934, as the Nazis tightened their grip, his parents moved to London. At boarding school, Freud had a rebellious, subversive attitude. He was much happier at Cedric Morris’s East Anglian art school. His efforts were often presumed to be naive or faux naif, but weren’t actually either. His meticulous depiction of any given subject produced images of obsessive precision that could verge on the surreal. Yet he was aiming for guileless veracity. “I was trying for accuracy of a sort. I didn’t think of detail; it was simply, through my concentration, a question of focus.” He never lost that quality of sustained, relentless focus.

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