David Freud: The art of forgiveness

He grew up angry with his famous, absent, father Lucian. Now an artist himself, he wants to help other young men without a male role model
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Lucian Freud's son, David, who looks so much like his father that even he accepts that they are almost indistinguishable in pictures, is considering painting the late artist as the world has never seen: depicting his father linking arms with Adolf Hitler – something he knows would be "very controversial" to family and fans.

But for the 48-year-old painter (Sigmund Freud is his great-grandfather), the painting would be about something important to him: forgiveness. Growing up as one of 14 children fathered by the man once dubbed "the greatest living realist painter" was not easy.

At just two years old, David moved out of his father's house and into a south-west London council estate with his three siblings and his mother, Katherine McAdam, who did not want any more children with a man already becoming infamous for his infidelity. He believes she grew exasperated with her partner's lifestyle. "He wasn't a family man," said David. "He would paint in the studio at night and gallivant in the day, seeing his girlfriends." There were three families on the go at once, he added: "He wasn't really capable of being a father in the traditional sense."

Describing his father as "secretive" and "divisive", David added that "ignoring social norms wasn't a style choice for my father. I think he had a high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder; I think he had Asperger's. I don't think he had the ability to empathise normally with people. I think if you ever met him, Asperger's would have screamed out at you. It was obvious, if you tried to hug him, or saw one of his grandchildren try to hug him. My dad was famous for the intensity of his gaze, but I think the gaze was his way of coping with [it]."

David did not tell anyone on the council estate who his father was, and while he was surrounded by his books, exhibition leaflets, and his "case from when he went to war with his name on", he did not hear from his father again until he was 23 years old. The renowned artist offered little financial support to his estranged family when they were growing up; David was so poor that he had to steal his school uniform. His new painting would pose a simple question, he said. "[It would ask] is it possible to forgive Hitler? Is it possible to forgive your father?"

He recalls meeting his father – for the first time – in a bar in Mayfair, at around midnight one evening more than 20 years ago. "When we met, he asked me about Richard Branson, because I was then doing marketing for Virgin's holiday company. I told him he was very public-spirited. Lucian said: 'I'm not at all public-spirited.' I thought that was quite a strange comment. Then Lucian said: 'I'm very selfish.' As a matter-of-fact sort of thing. He was puffing a cigar. I remember thinking he was quite an impressive sort of man. He didn't just do things for the sake of it. He wouldn't even say things without waiting for socially unacceptable amounts of time. He chose his words very carefully."

But good first impressions aside, their first meeting did not turn into a father-son relationship. David said: "I didn't really press or ask for meetings. Lucian was the same old Lucian; he was getting on with what he did. You couldn't phone him up. He didn't really do family." It was at his father's funeral that David met some of his half-siblings, who include the designer Bella Freud and novelist Esther Freud, for the first time.

If Hitler and Lucian ever do make it on to the same painting, it will be at a fundraising gala next month for a Brighton-based male mentoring group called A Band of Brothers. David is taking part in a 24-hour paint-a-thon in a bid to raise money for the charity, which pairs disaffected young men with local male role models. The organisation works with some of the most prolific repeat offenders in the area, using weekend retreats to create modern "rites of passages" for the young men, in an attempt to build their self-worth.

Freud, who wants to become a mentor, understands what it is like to grow up in a "fatherless family". He said: "I didn't have a male influence. I would pick a bit of one person and a bit of another, and make up a sort of image of a father figure. I think you need one. Not having a father figure leaves you to make it up by yourself. I didn't have any discipline; me and my brother were pretty wild."

David is "still working" on his own ability for forgive, admitting that he grew up "angry" at his father. His father might not have known what council estate David had moved to, but once they reunited, it was on Lucian's terms. David was unable to reach him on the telephone, and he wrote letters that were never answered. Lucian's death in 2011 helped his quest to forgive, admits David. After visiting his father twice on his deathbed, David painted portraits of him – which ended up in his first exhibition held in the Meller Merceux Gallery. The show was simply titled: "Losing Lucian".

Now a father of four, David chastises himself over the fact that he has lost contact with his third daughter, eight-year-old Violet. After a "whirlwind" marriage, her mother does not want David to see his child. "I've recreated the relationship between me and my father with Violet," said David, who is dedicating his third exhibit, this autumn, "Violet", to his daughter. He said the gallery expects his pieces to be sold for as much as £30,000.

Having painted full-time for almost a decade, David said it wasn't until his father died that he felt confident enough to exhibit his work. "I used to find painting painful – the process of concentration. I wasn't happy with painting while Lucian was alive; I didn't want to share ground with him," he said. "But now I don't feel like that. Lucian said art doesn't have any use, but I think it was really useful to me. I am very different from my father. My paintings are very different. They are driven by empathy; not too bothered with detail."

'For a man to be able to pick up the phone and ask for help is a really big thing... now I look at life from a different perspective'

Danny, 25, from Brighton, had just left prison – three years early from a six-year sentence for robbery – when he was told about A Band of Brothers by friends on his estate. He had moved around care homes, lost his mother in a traffic accident at 15, and his brother to suicide. His father, a drug abuser, had suffered a brain infection and was left incapacitated. He had never had a male role model.

Then he went on The Quest, a weekend residential programme organised by the charity, to help young men open-up emotionally and build their self-esteem. Danny, who is now working part-time in carpentry, was buddied up with a mentor, Ian, with whom he still has a relationship. For Danny, who is now about to become a father himself, the support group turned his life around.

"I was dubious about it before. I was unmanageable: going out every night, drinking and smoking cannabis. But for a man to be able to pick up the phone and ask for help is a really big thing. When I was in arrears, Ian took me to the council and went with me to court.

"I didn't get evicted in the end because we put in the footwork. Now I look at life from a different perspective. I want a nice family and a home; a bit of structure – something I've craved since I was young."

Sarah Morrison