Ariane Bankes

The ‘delishious’ letters of Lucian Freud

His vivid, misspelt missives, full of wild anecdotes and quirky sketches, are affectionate, teasing and often a bit surreal

Lucian Freud, c. 1943. [Ian Gibson Smith]

Love him or loathe him, Lucian Freud was a maverick genius whose life from the off was as singular as his paintings were celebrated. He never really knew his famous grandfather, who left Vienna in 1938 only a year before his death, and one can only speculate what Sigmund would have made of his wayward and wildly gifted grandson on the strength of this effervescent collection of early correspondence.

He certainly would have admired it on aesthetic grounds: a handsome quarto volume, cloth-bound and embossed, whose contents are a model of intelligent design. Every one of the missives – letters, postcards, scraps of paper – is reproduced in facsimile, with accompanying transcription, the reason being that a great many of them include droll and quirky sketches, rendering them artworks in themselves. Freud’s handwriting hardly advances beyond the level of an average eight-year-old (he was a natural left-hander forced to write with his right). He never mastered joined up writing and his spelling and syntax remained comic-atrocious, ‘delishious’ being a favourite term of praise.

Letter from Lucian Freud to Felicity Hellaby, late October or early November 1943

Freud’s spelling and syntax are comic-atrocious, ‘delishious’ being a favourite term of praise

These quirky communications are set, like rhinestones on a velvet cloak, within an elegant rolling narrative that explains, elucidates and connects them, propelling the story on through three eventful decades and culminating in Freud’s inclusion in the Venice Biennale of 1954 and his emergence, at 31, as an artist of international renown. We are thereby spared the clunky scaffolding of footnotes (though the text is fully sourced), and we’re in for a roller-coaster ride.

A few colourful childhood notes in invented scripts set the tone, for fantasy, invention and elaboration were key to Freud’s communications.

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