I was looking the other day at a video of the artist Celia Paul in conversation with the curator of her recent exhibition at the Huntington Library in California. The image projected there of a reserved and quietly-spoken woman, hesitant, diffident and patently ill at ease in the spotlight, left me very unprepared for the raw honesty and openness of this memoir.
Two early stories give an idea of what lies ahead. The first is of her five-year-old self, the youngest so far in a family of four daughters of a missionary father in India, making herself seriously ill with jealousy on the arrival of a fifth sister. She resolved, she says, to die, and is still convinced that by an act of will she brought on leukaemia, resulting in the removal of the entire family from India so that she could be treated at Hammersmith Hospital.
Some eight years later, her father now head of a religious community in Devon, Paul was at boarding school nearby. There she developed a close relationship with another girl, fuelled by an intensely competitive obsession with art. Driven to succeed, Paul worked furiously, furtively and secretly; ditched the friendship, astonished the art teacher and blazed a trail to the Slade at the age of 16.
The ferocity and iron will that were clearly there from the start have been either the background or the foreground of all her relationships and the core that has enabled her to emerge strong from a lifetime of emotional dilemma. And she wants her experience to speak to other young women in her situation. ‘One of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist,’ she writes, ‘is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way. I think that generally men find it much easier to be selfish.’
The inescapably selfish man who lives at the heart of this book is Lucian Freud, one of Britain’s leading figurative painters at the time when he met Paul, an art student nearly 40 years his junior. Their relationship is told retrospectively and in extracts from notebooks, poems and letters written at the time, and in both cases with a direct freshness and a natural ear for dialogue.
Among Freud’s myriad relations, lovers and friends, none can have brought a reader so close to him, none can have detailed so tellingly the fluctuating dynamic of magnetism and despair, the assertion of will in the face of domination. Paul tells with brilliant immediacy the story of their first meeting, her reluctance, her fascination, her gradual succumbing. It is tender, exciting, touching and never prurient. But it is brutal too. ‘I felt exposed and hated the feeling,’ she recalls of the first time she sat for him, lying naked in an awkward pose: ‘I cried throughout these sessions.’ Their ten-year relationship is told unflinchingly, without rancour or self-pity, the hopes, the betrayals, the birth of their son, until at last Paul escapes the gravitational pull of the great man and consolidates her own career.
Behind Celia Paul has always stood her family: her four sisters and her parents, and in particular her mother who played the major role in bringing up Paul’s son, Frank, allowing her to concentrate on her art. All the family sat for her, and the active role of the sitter is as much a topic here as the role of the artist. Paul’s mother was her most frequent sitter, and there is a marvellous description of her climbing the 80 steps up to Paul’s flat on the top floor of a building opposite the British Museum, a trek she made from Cambridge twice a week, arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving before lunch:
She would be too exhausted and out of breath to speak for the first few minutes. She would collapse into my battered wood-framed chair in my front room, with her bags scattered all around her. She looked as if she’d just fallen from a great height into the chair and all her clothes and possessions had exploded on impact.
But it is not only her mother who has been her subject and inspiration. ‘I have always been an autobiographer and a chronicler of my life and family,’ she writes at the start of this memoir and her numinous paintings of individuals and groups bear this out. The women of the family mourning the death of her father, the sisters re-grouped after the mother’s death; a self-portrait, consciously echoing Freud’s last painting of her, of an artist now confident in her autonomy. ‘By writing about myself in my own words,’ she says, ‘I have made my life my own story. Lucian, particularly, is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.’
Too right. Although this book will doubtless be cited in the bibliography of every book on Freud, it will more rightfully take its place at the top of the bibliography of every book on Celia Paul.