One evening during 2004, while I was posing for a painting that was eventually entitled, `Man with a Blue Scarf`. Lucian Freud got on to the subject of a fellow artist, but not one with whom one would normally link him: the German exponent performance and installation Joseph Beuys. They had not, as it turned out, got on at all well, and one of the reasons for this lack of sympathy was romantic.
Or rather, Lucian was offended by Beuys’s lack of chivalry. “He would talk about the women in his life in the dreary way that men talk in pubs, “Isn’t it a shame that we can’t get on without them?” This immediately brought out the feminist in me. I felt, “How dare you speak about my gender in that way!”
Now, the idea of Lucian Freud as a feminist might strike some readers as surprising. But part of the charm of his company was that his remarks, opinions and observations were so often unexpected, even startling. I remember a anecdote which began, “My great hero, who is of course..”, at which point I ran through my mind a series of possible candidates for that position, such as Matisse, Titian, Chardin and Courbet. Then he carried on and named his idol. It turned out to be Lester Piggott. This was perfectly consistent with another reminiscence, that his second choice of career, if he had not been able to become a painter, would have been that of jockey.
Lucian was amused and flattered to read of himself in newspapers as “the world’s greatest lover”, noting that his name was linked with that of many young women, “some of whom I know much better than others”. But in his own mind at least, he was more a romantic victim than a Don Juan. This came out in his account of his adulation of nurses:
“I am very strongly affected by them. In fact so much so that when I go to visit people in hospital, I can scarcely concentrate on them. I ought to wear blinkers. It started, I think, when I was in hospital for a lengthy period during the war. Nurses would come and tuck me into bed firmly and all that sort of thing. I thought that was marvellous. I think that was the origin of my nurse worship.”
He loved the way they talked, giving as an example, in a cockney accent, the following scrap of remembered conversation. “That bastard down the ward didn’t die until 4 o’clock in the morning. Kept me up all night”.
It is a statement of the blindingly obvious to say that Lucian was in every way an artist, and that that affected his attitude to everything he encountered. But it is worth emphasising how thoroughly his concern for nuances and subtle aspects of people and things that might strike others as mere details. This applied to his response to food, places and people as it did to colours, forms and textures.
His sensitivity was, naturally in the first place visual, but might be adjusted in the light of other impressions. Once, I invited him to come to a concert given by a jazz singer. Afterwards, he confessed that he had initially thought she could be any good, “wearing a trouser suit like that”, but that in fact she had sung wonderfully.
In a way he wasn’t fussy. “I’m not after what people are always advertising for, someone like-minded I’d be quite happy with a savage.” But in other ways he was. Lucian hated banality and one remark could be enough to make him start feel as he put it, “demoralised”. Of one person he was sees in the 1990s, he reported, “She said that basically everyone is nice, and you just have to understand them, which made me feel rather tired”.
Lucian disliked cosmetics, which was of a piece with his attitude to cooking – he liked everything au naturel: his spinach without oil or butter, his game wild and not farmed, nothing that had been frozen. Of someone with whom he had “a sort of date”, he complained that she was wearing so much make up, “I felt I couldn’t really see who I was talking to”.
On the other hand, he would put up with a great deal, if he loved or liked someone. Even traits that many would find tiresome, he found powerful attractive if displayed by someone he loved, as in this fond recollection of the chaotic incompetence of his second wife, Caroline Blackwood.
”I once painted a miniature for my Caroline. It was of a bird in a cage to go inside a locket. She lost it almost immediately – left it on a train – as she almost always lost everything. She would lose her suitcases if she went travelling. Caroline always lit a cigarette with the match held upwards, so it would go out very quickly and she would take ten matches to light one. She smoked all the time so that her nostrils were blackened like the entrances to a tunnel, which was absolutely marvellous. She even smoked in her sleep”.
As for his feminism, I believed in it. Even though – as he was ready to admit, his behaviour with women had been far from faultless – his sympathy and laser-like interest were entirely genuine. That was one reason why he held such charm for them.