Breakfast With Lucien by Geordie Grieg (Book review)

Man-dogby Alan King

Whatever it was the author shared with famous British figurative artist Lucien Freud at the breakfast table it definitely wasn’t sunny side up. The meal served in this brief memoir is a dark, all-you-can-hump buffet. Much of it entails Freud bloviating unapologetically about his lengthy conga-line of bed partners — many of them married to his friends or were teenage schoolmates of his daughters — and it’s not long before you feel faintly queasy.

But Geordie Grieg former editor of the Tattler, the chronicle of the British upper classes, gamely swallows everything put in front of him and barely bats a dyspeptic eyelash. The perspective is one of benign, worshipful indulgence, an attitude for which his editorship at the toff-burnishing glossy prepared him well.

Not far into the book Grieg reveals that he relentlessly pursued Freud as a subject for a magazine interview after being gobsmacked by one of his paintings (‘Man with a Rat’ — a painting of a nude, legs spread with a rat nuzzling his crotch) in the 80’s. Freud kept turning him down and it wasn’t until he suggested that Freud be photographed with his old friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach that he finally relented. Thus began a thirty year relationship which centred around breakfasts at Clarke’s, a posh eatery in Kensington a short dodder from Freud’s home.

Freud was the Greta Garbo of the art world. His phone number was given out to only a few close friends. His mailing address was his solicitor’s office and he occasionally turned in fury on people who pointed cameras at him.

In the nineties he worked quietly with a writer on an authorized biography but eventually it became clear that there were going to be some awkward revelations. To forestall publication he wrote the author a large cheque. Another potential biographer suddenly found he had writer’s block when a group of East End gangsters showed up at his home. Bookies and gangsters were apparently a leitmotif in Freud’s life because of his addiction to horse racing and gambling. (The largest collection of his paintings belonged to Afie McLean, a Northern Irish bookmaker).

Grieg somehow managed to stay in his good graces — and injury free — publishing occasional magazine pieces about him until he died at 88 in 2011. Now that he’s gone, the story as they say can be told, though it’s a safe bet that much of what is written here is only a glimmer of pentimento.

The dramatis personae is a familiar one if you’ve read Edward St. Aubyn or Evelyn Waugh though in this case of course not fictionalized. ‘Debo’, the Duchess of Devonshire, various Rothschilds and Andrew Parker Bowles (Camilla’s ex) have walk-ons.

Rich, titled, entitled, self-indulgent narcissists crowd the pages, sealed off from the world in a bubble of privilege and snobbery. Many are preposterously eager to have themselves painted by Freud, an artist whose rendering of the human figure, clothed or unclothed, can hardly be described as sympathetic. His portraits have a psychological intensity that borders on personal violation.

Why submit to one of his painterly dissections? The obvious reason is that Lucien Freud was regarded in some quarters as the greatest figurative painter of his time. He bore the surname of psychiatry’s presiding genius and who knows? your face might find immortality of a kind underneath that crusty impasto.

But revealingly, his most exploitive paintings are those of his social inferiors — the bookies, models and fame-dazzled girlfriends who found their way to his studio. Here are the splayed figures for which he is best known — genitalia front and centre. Contorted, bent bodies fixed like butterflies on a collectors panel. That’s not to say that some are not rivetting images and show immense technical skill, but one has to ask why the vast power differential between artist and model. Why for instance always the downward viewpoint, the cringe-inducing vulnerablility of his subjects? Why the pitiless gaze?

These are questions that his grandfather would surely have had a vast, multi-layered answer to and that one of his putative 30 legitimate and illegitimate children might be tempted to ask.

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