“I love German poetry but I loathe the German language”
With a doleful shake of the head, during a platform discussion with me at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival relating to a “School of London” exhibition, the critic David Sylvester declared Lucian Freud to be, in his view, “not a born painter.” Freud, he said, “had applied himself to the art of painting without ever convincing me that he was a painter.”1 Five days later in an article in the Guardian, written in response to a report of the discussion in The Times, he expanded on this notion of the inherent or incubated: “In reality he has become an outstanding painter without having been, I think, a painter by nature: he is a painter made, not born, made by a huge effort of will applied to the realisation of a highly personal and searching vision of the world.”2
Reading this, Freud laughed. Here was cliché rounding on cliché. Certainly he liked to think of himself as self-made. “I like the anarchic idea of coming from nowhere. But I think that’s probably because I had a very steady childhood.” Anyone with Sigmund Freud as a grandfather could be all too readily assumed to have privileged access—by genetic imprint maybe—to a searching understanding of character and motivation, not to mention a predisposition to examine people on couches. The parallels are inviting: clinical analysis and portrait analysis, neuroses diagnosed and neuroses depicted. In reality however Lucian inherited only his grandfather’s fur-collared overcoat and a part share, with the other grandchildren, in the copyrights on his published works. True, the illustrious surname awaited him at birth. That may have provoked expectations. But the idea of anyone being born or not born an artist or indeed born a psychoanalyst was, he murmured, ridiculous. “It’s jargon. A twerp’s born. ‘A born idiot.’ No, the only thing you can be born, actually, is a baby.”
Born in Berlin on 8 December 1922, the middle son of thirty-year-old Ernst Ludwig Freud, youngest son of Sigmund Freud, Lucian Michael Freud was named after his mother, Lucie Brasch, and Michael, the fighting archangel. His elder brother, Stefan Gabriel, had been born sixteen months before and the younger brother, Clemens Raphael, came sixteen months later. The 8th, number eight and multiples of eight were to become significant factors in gambling calculations throughout his life. As for the archangel names, Lucie Freud explained that they fitted in with her plan to have three children. She had been certain that she would have boys only.
Lucian considered himself isolated, outstandingly so, from the start. “My mother said that my first word was ‘alleine’ which means ‘alone.’ ‘Leave me alone’: I always liked being on my own, I was always terribly anxious there should be no competition.” His mother, it emerged, had a special attitude to Lux, as both he and she were familiarly referred to. He was the born favourite. “She treated me in a way as an only child from very early on; it seemed unhealthy, in a way. I always longed to have a sister.”
Ernst Freud maintained an architect’s office in the large family apartment—tall, panelled rooms with chandeliers—in Regentenstrasse 23 in Lützow, an imposing district of Berlin near the Tiergarten, two streets away from where Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie now stands. He had a partner and two assistants: “Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Augenfelt, who we called Grock (‘Grockchen’) as he looked like Grock the clown who I’d seen at the circus.” Lucian considered his father good at jokes but a bit distant. “I thought the one time I liked my father was when he used to walk me with my feet on his feet and he’d open his mouth and be a giant and take huge steps.” Professionally speaking he was easy-going, so much so that he had to be bailed out on several occasions by his mother-in-law or cousins, the Mosses, when business ventures failed. He was happy, eager even, to represent the great Viennese Professor Freud at receptions in his honour. “My mother wasn’t: she felt it was wrong to be put in the position of going somewhere for his father rather than himself.
“My father’s favourite musical instrument was the one-man band: bike, drum and trumpet. Grandfather too prided himself on being unmusical. In Vienna you have to have attitude.
“He wasn’t the sort of architect who’d draw houses that weren’t built. Richard Neutra was an old friend of his from Vienna and Gropius he admired, and knew a little, but he was obviously not in the forefront. He did things very quietly and even though the style was quite radical he was not an innovator of the style, he was a user of the style.” His buildings included a small cigarette factory, the Neue Villa in Dahlem, for Sigmund Freud’s friend Dr. Hans Lampl, and a house overlooking a lake in Geltow near Potsdam for Dr. Frank, Director of the Berlin Discont-Gesellschaft, a novel feature of which was a window, described in the Studio Year Book: Decorative Art 19343 as “a glass wall 20 feet long sliding down into the cellar, worked by weights and easily manipulated by hand.” He fitted out consulting rooms for psychoanalysts—couches calculatedly placed just so in relation to the analyst’s chair—and designed furniture: heavy shelving in African rosewood for his own study, and sofas that Lucian remembered as being “most inventive in ashwood and very severe.” In a Berlin of grand turn-of-the-century apartment blocks, the interiors that Ernst Freud produced were clear-cut expressions of modernity installed behind ponderous façades.
Frank Auerbach, who, many years later, was to become Freud’s closest painter friend and whose father was a lawyer, remembered the type of apartment that he and Lucian grew up in as being stiflingly well appointed: “The apartment. I don’t know what you’d call it. A sort of hexagonal hole with doors leading off it in various directions, my father’s office being one of the doors leading off. These flats were big and there were courtyards where people would beat carpets in the centre of the court. Ours was a Wilmersdorf flat. Tiergarten was Park Lane.”4 Evidently the Freuds, thanks to Brasch family money, were one step up from the Auerbachs.
In April 1922, Sigmund Freud wrote to Ernst for his thirtieth birthday: “You possess everything a man can want at your age, a loving wife, a splendid child, work, and friends.” This was more than the usual good wishes. Earlier that year there had been (as Hans Lampl put it) “a brief period of alienation” in his youngest son’s marriage about which he knew next to nothing, for disturbing news was generally kept from the Professor. However, according to his daughter Anna—a not altogether reliable source—he blamed his daughter-in-law for whatever upset or estrangement there may have been and lamented how few women know how to love their men. An admirer sarcastically referred to by Ernst Freud as “Schwäbisches Nachtigall” (the Swabian Nightingale) was said to have addressed poems to her. Seventy years later Lucian Freud confirmed this. “He wrote these poems to my mother. Sonnets. But I don’t think she would have given my father any cause. She could never have had anything to hide; it wasn’t her way.” As it was, the couple were reconciled, Lucian was born and the marriage thrived. “I’m sure they were happily married as they would go abroad on their own to Italy or Spain or Greece.”
In later life both brothers, Clement and Stephen as they became known, took to letting it be known confidentially that, their mother having died meanwhile, the time had come to disclose that the Swabian Nightingale, Ernst Heilbrun, was, quite possibly, Lucian’s father. Setting aside the entertaining thought that if he didn’t happen to be descended from Sigmund then he could be relieved of the irritation of it being so often said that he had inherited the genes of psychoanalytical acumen, Lucian dismissed the guess as a brotherly slur. “My grandparents adored my mother. Both loved her and were terribly pleased that my father—gentle, quiet—had married such a talented and good woman. In some ways, considering what you read about Berlin then, they led a sheltered life.”
While Ernst Freud was known for easy-going optimism (though subject to migraines), Lucie Freud was admired for her seriousness, her beauty and vivacity and, moreover, for being a good housewife. “My mother’s classical scholarship—University of Munich—came in useful once, when they were on a boat and there was a priest on it and the only language they had in common was Latin.” Ernst, being Austrian—the Berlin police picked him up once in the twenties as a suspect foreigner—lived by Viennese conventionality. “We had lunch on Sundays with our parents. Father required two vegetables for a main dish and he made coffee after the meal as men did that in Vienna: it was one of the links between Turkey and Vienna. The famous couch was Turkish.”
Home life was compartmented and secluded. First a nanny then a governess had charge of the boys. The barber came to the house, and the dentist. (“Stephen said to me, ‘I forget: was it the dentist or the barber that you bit?’ ”) Round the corner, in Bendligstrasse—now Stauffenbergstrasse—were the Mosse cousins: Dr. Mosse, his wife Gerda (Lucie’s sister) and their children, Jo, who was a couple of years older than Lucian, Richard—“Wolf”—a year younger, and Carola. The Mosses’ wealth derived from newspaper publishing, as did that of the Ullsteins, who lived next door to the Freuds. Gabriele Ullstein, a few months older than Lucian (whom she knew as Michael), was the granddaughter of Louis Ullstein, publisher of the Berliner Morgenpost and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung whose Ullstein Printing House, on Ullstein Strasse, was one of the finest modern industrial buildings in Berlin. Looking back, Gabriele suspected that her mother rather kept her distance from Lucie Freud, uncomfortable with having so good-looking a neighbour. Arrangements however were made for the Freud boys to join Gabriele and others in an improvised kindergarten with use of the Ullstein sandpit.
Every afternoon, Gabriele Ullstein remembered, nannies gathered in the Tiergarten with their charges and settled into cliques. Children with Misses looking after them were hived off from those with Mademoiselles or with Fräuleins. Superior broods had English nannies and governesses; Gabriele had Rose from Ipswich, then a Miss Penfold, then a Miss Parfitt, while the Freuds had a Bavarian to look after them. Lucian did not take to her. “Fräulein Per Lindemeyer (we called her Linde): I remember thinking there was something wrong about my mother coming up to the bedroom to get an affectionate goodnight when, just before, I’d been beaten by Linde the governess. Just bashes with her huge arm.” Linde’s recollection of Lucian, decades later, he reported, was that he was “Very lively but not affectionate.”
“When we went to Bavaria to stay in a chalet that the Ullsteins had, on the way down on the train to Munich, in the sleeping car, she fell out of the hammock.”
The Bavarian chalet had a balcony around it where every afternoon the children were made to sit on their potties. Silent concentration was the rule until one day, according to Gabriele, Lucian decided to play up, jerking himself along the landing on his potty like an eager jockey. He was, Gabriele felt, a born instigator. “Lucian had the authority of expecting to be obeyed.” His memory of this went further. “I remember feeling very merry on the upstairs landing and wanting to go out looking for mushrooms and wild strawberries.”5 Let loose, they splashed around in a stream and competed to see who could get the most leeches on their legs.
Told at his first school to tie shoelaces in a particular way, he promised himself: “I’ll never tie them that way again.”
Misbehaviour always stimulated him. “We were walking with our nannies in the Tiergarten, with Michael and Paul, the sons of our doctor, Professor Dr. Hamburger. There were beggars around, there were lots then, and there was a beggar with a flaming red beard and eyes and we rushed to get money from our nannies to put in his bag and tiptoed, terrified, up to him. But Paul, who was the youngest of us, toddled up and took all the money and put it in his pocket and I thought it terrifically funny, this amazing feat. When I got home I told my mother and she said it was wrong. But then when my Aunt Anna bought a farmhouse, with her friend Dorothy Burlingham, at Hochrotherd, the vendor was a beggar from the streets of Vienna: a prosperous beggar with considerable property, she was told.” Paul Hamburger was to become, in London, Paul Hamlyn, publisher and philanthropist.
After lunch the boys were sent to their room for a rest and when the blinds were drawn Lucian would say, “Have I gone blind?,” knowing he’d get a reaction out of Stefan who couldn’t see the joke, ever.
Seventy years later Clement wrote about his mother’s favouritism. “When she came into the nursery she nodded to Stephen and me and sat down with Lucian and whispered. They had secrets. I did not realise for many years that this is not what good mothers do.”6 Lucian himself didn’t regard being his mother’s chosen one as advantageous. “It’s what my brothers resented; and so did I. A violent thing, really bad, was when, during a picnic, I picked, or took, some fruit. ‘Give it to your brothers,’ my mother said, and she forcibly tried to take it from me and I wouldn’t let go. It was apricots, and I squashed them in my fist.” He was to maintain that her reaction was inexplicably passionate, so much so that he never trusted her again.
Lucian used to say that always—or as far back as he could remember—he’d found his brothers unrewarding. “They were always together and I was always alone. On the Berlin tube Cle caught the outside of his hand in the outside of the escalator. Terrific screams. I remembered getting his hand out and thinking how odd: it was frightening but I thought just how odd. I was just looking at him screaming.” A photograph taken in the street in 1928 shows them hand in hand. “The three of us in English clothes, tailored, and dark-suited sneering men staring at us pampered boys.”
Their mother read to all three but especially, he felt, to Lucian: “Schiller and Goethe ballads, Schiller’s ‘Der Handschuh’ [The Glove], a ballad in which the hero drops into a cage to retrieve his lady’s glove, a cage with a lion, a tiger and two leopards who won’t fight: they spare him and he throws the glove in her face. And one about Frederick the Great, how he rode up and down in front of his troops in the battle and shouted ‘Gauner!’—Villains (No, that’s not the word. Spivs? Cheats?)—‘Do you want to live for ever?’ And a soldier answered, ‘Fritzen: not to betray for sixpence a day, this is enough.’ ”
Copyright © 2019 by William Feaver. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.