Artist and muse Celia Paul: 'I was really quite disturbed by Lucian Freud's predatoriness'
The painter Celia Paul was 18 when Lucian Freud began to pursue her. She talks to Matilda Battersby about the effect their relationship had on her own work
Lucian Freud said it was "like walking into a honey pot" when he first saw Celia Paul's paintings. What Paul, who met Freud as her tutor at the Slade in 1978, didn't realise then, but laughs wryly at now, is that the sweet thing he was taken with was her 18-year-old self, as much as her artwork.
"I really didn't know anything about his womanising," Paul says. "I didn't realise how predatory he was." She later discovered that he'd taken the job as visiting tutor at the famous London art school because his relationship at the time was going wrong and "he wanted to find a new girlfriend".
The teenage Paul was caught in Freud's spell; and a potent one it proved. "The day we met he took me back to his studio, and showed me the early stages of Two Plants, which is now in Tate. I think he would have liked to have seduced me there and then, but that didn't happen. I'd been brought up in a religious family, I'd never had a sexual thing with a boy at all," she says.new
"I was really quite disturbed by his predatoriness. It felt quite complicated, because obviously I was compelled by his art, which I admired so much."
But the 55-year-old Freud, whose mesmerising qualities had at that point already earned him 13 acknowledged children, won Paul over. It took several months for them to become lovers, and two years for Freud to paint Paul. But she would become a significant muse for him in the early 1980s.
Paul's small and striking features, distorted by Freud's signature fleshiness, peer out from paintings such as Naked Girl with Egg and, poignantly, Girl in a Striped Nightshirt, which he painted when Paul was pregnant with their son. Frank, 28, also an artist, is Freud's youngest acknowledged child.
Now herself a celebrated artist, Paul, 52, has a very distinctive take on the world. Her paintings, in muted, earthy colours, reflect deep emotional intensity and interiority. Dr Rowan Williams describes Paul's style thus: "Celia Paul allows the traces of something unfinished to mark her canvases, trails of paint, untenanted space, a certain rawness of isolation or vulnerability."
But to be linked to Freud's name is to be overshadowed by it. This is underscored in an exhibition of Paul's currently at Pallant House, Chichester, which explores her work in relation to that of another famous artist and muse, Gwen John (1876-1939).
Although Paul was born 20 years after John's death, there are delicious parallels between the two women. John, too, had an affair with one of the most celebrated artists of her day, Auguste Rodin, who, like Freud, was an incorrigible lothario. She posed for him and they became lovers when she was 28 and he in his sixties. The fiercely independent John had moved to France to escape the London art scene (and her artist brother Augustus's shadow), but falling into the arms of Rodin changed her identity, albeit briefly, from artist to muse.
Both women studied at the Slade, although 80 years apart, and during their careers they worked repeatedly from the same model. In Paul's case this was her mother, Pamela Paul, whom she painted regularly over 30 years, only stopping in 2011. John meanwhile repeatedly painted another kind of mother: Mère Poussepin, the foundress of a convent where she found solace, and God, while on the rebound from Rodin.
In both artists' work there is a sense of containment, of explosive expressiveness boxed into spare, domestic portraits and still lives. When I visited Paul at her studio across the road from the British Museum, her sparse flat, with bare paint-spattered floorboards and a few sticks of furniture, reminded me forcibly of John's A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris (1907).
While Paul has in no way set out to emulate John, Freud was happy to model himself on Rodin, in one sense at least. "Rodin was a great womaniser as well, so Lucian used to say what a coincidence it was that he shared his birthday with Camille Claudel [an artist and muse to Rodin before John], 8 December, while Lucian's mistress Suzy Boyt, the mother of four of his children, was born on 12 November, Rodin's birthday," Paul recalls.
Unlike John, Paul never considered giving up her art for her lover. "Lucian also used to say to me that when Gwen was intensely involved with Rodin she stopped working and gave herself up for love. I think Lucian thought it would be quite nice if I did the same thing. But actually being with him made me more ambitious," she says.
Paul had another woman from whom to draw caution, too. "Lucian also met Suzy Boyt at the Slade, but in the 1950s," she says. "Suzy was really a very talented painter, but she gave everything up for him. I suppose I was aware of her example."
Being a muse – the passivity and giving over of your appearance to an artist to do with as they please, is obviously disempowering – which is why models are historically women. But it is particularly difficult if you are an artist too. Freud explored the paradox between Paul as muse and artist in his 1986 painting Painter and Model. Paul stands in the foreground, clad in a painter's smock, her bare foot squishing a paint tube, as a naked male model lies legs akimbo on the sofa.
"I did a self-portrait this year also called Painter and Model," Paul tells me. "I've put squished paint tubes scattered at my bare feet, in reference to Lucian's, but I'm also the sitter. It's a slight reference to women's position in portraiture as being usually models. But I'm in the more powerful position as the painter as well."
Tellingly Paul's greatest muse was a woman – her mother – while John famously never painted a man. Paul says both she and John are "different from other women artists". She cites Paula Rego's abortion and female circumcision paintings, and Tracey Emin and Frieda Kahlo who are "into the cult of their personalities", as examples of the disparity. Both Paul and John seem interested in "quietness" in its purest sense; painting women in contemplation and solitude, free from men and somehow apart from society.
Just as Augustus John predicted he would become known as his more talented sister's brother, you might also call Freud Paul's muse. The Pallant House exhibition includes a very tender sketch of him sleeping from 1987, in which his Roman face is softened into a young man's by slumber. Another exhibition by Paul running concurrently at Chichester Cathedral, is a series of 14 recent paintings produced as an expression of her grief following Freud's death, aged 88, last year, entitled Separation.
"Lucian was a really good sitter," she says. "He was really quite lovely about it and bought himself this wonderful slate-grey boiler suit with Velcro down the front. He looked really beautiful in it and would sit for me quite regularly, lying in a typical pose with his fist up near his face."
'Gwen John & Celia Paul: Painters in Parallel', Pallant House, Chichester (pallant.org.uk) to 27 January; 'Separation', Chichester Cathedral, to 20 November
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