Lucian Freud: The master painter

His desire for painting is undiminished at 81, as is his love of women and horses (he had nine children at the last count, but he's cut back on the gambling). He is Europe's greatest living artist - mysterious, glamorous, prolific, and not a little dangerous

When the exhibition of 15 new Lucian Freud paintings opens this week at the Wallace Collection in London, one work will surely dominate the show. Seated in the artist's studio, the setting for all Freud portraits, his midriff slightly bulging with middle-age, a larger-than-life Andrew Parker Bowles gazes thoughtfully out of the canvas, an expression of vague melancholy playing over his features. Unlike most of Freud's subjects - and perhaps to the disappointment of some - Camilla's ex-husband is not naked, but dressed in all the finery and polished spurs of the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry.

When the exhibition of 15 new Lucian Freud paintings opens this week at the Wallace Collection in London, one work will surely dominate the show. Seated in the artist's studio, the setting for all Freud portraits, his midriff slightly bulging with middle-age, a larger-than-life Andrew Parker Bowles gazes thoughtfully out of the canvas, an expression of vague melancholy playing over his features. Unlike most of Freud's subjects - and perhaps to the disappointment of some - Camilla's ex-husband is not naked, but dressed in all the finery and polished spurs of the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry.

"They've been friends for 20 years," says a Freud-watcher. "They share a great love of horses, and met when Lucian wanted to paint some of the animals at the Household Cavalry." Rumour has it that at the time Freud was warned against choosing one particular beast as his subject because it had "bitten a trooper's bollock off".

A new Freud exhibition is a significant cultural event in itself, of course. At 81, Europe's greatest living painter still works exceptionally hard, often on five or six portraits at once, each taking months of painstaking labour and dedicated sitting. "He says he doesn't quite believe in the afterlife," says a friend, "and now that's he getting old, he must paint and paint." A major Freud retrospective took place just two years ago at Tate Britain, a year after he unveiled his controversial, somewhat masculine, portrait of the Queen. (According to one critic, the monarch appeared to be sporting a five o'clock shadow.) Freud is likely to enjoy the irony of the implicit link between these two portraits - Her Majesty and Andrew Parker Bowles - as though the decline of the Royal Family can be traced in the Queen's overly defined wrinkles and the pensive stare of the cuckolded Brigadier.

Freud has always been something of a social anarchist, at ease among the aristocracy and at the dog track, in the world of high fashion (Kate Moss and Jerry Hall are two of his sitters), and in the pubs and clubs of Soho, where his most remarkable subject, the 16-stone performer and exhibitionist Leigh Bowery, worked and played throughout the 1980s. And the variety and incongruity of his friendships have always fed directly into his work. Time and again, Freud has insisted that his painting is "purely autobiographical". "It is about myself and my surroundings. I use people to make my pictures."

He was born in 1923, and had a rebellious streak even as a child in Berlin, where his father, Ernst, had an architectural practice. The writer and curator William Feaver recounts how Lucian, being the smallest and quickest member of his gang, was always the one chosen to steal chocolate from sweet shops. Like the other two Jewish boys at school he was ineligible for Hitler Youth, but was told that he wasn't missing very much, "though the sausages were good". On occasion his grandfather, Sigmund, came to Berlin for treatment for cancer of the jaw, and once gave the young Lucian a copy of The Arabian Nights gorgeously illustrated by Edmund Dulac, a "lovely fat book with what seemed to me pretty good watercolours".

The Freuds emigrated to Britain when Lucian was 10. Five years later he was expelled from Bryanston for dropping his trousers to stunned onlookers in Bournemouth, but also got into deep trouble for redirecting a pack of foxhounds into the school hall. Formal education did not inspire Freud, and after relatively unproductive spells at various art schools, in 1941 he signed up as an ordinary seaman and joined the SS Baltrover on an Atlantic convoy out of Liverpool. It was a dangerous voyage, and Freud, who made friends with other sailors by offering his services as an Indian ink tattooist, suffered raging tonsillitis on the return trip.

Back in London he began a number of exciting careers, as a gambler, a painter and a lover of women - the last two, his lifelong passions. For much of the 1960s, Freud worked from 4am to lunchtime, and then disappeared to the bookies for the day (once he lost every penny he had except his car, which he promptly sold and lost, too), but nowadays his love of horses and dogs is purely aesthetic and affectionate. Another new work at the Wallace Collection, Grey Gelding, is a rather tender portrait of a horse's head.

His relationship with women is much more complicated. Freud's portraits of women have been described as both cruelly misogynist and adoringly intimate. He has referred to himself as a "feminist". Many of his works feature pregnant women (Naked Portrait II, 1980-81, was finished the night before the sitter gave birth), and appear to revel in the ripe fertility of female biology. Indeed he has nine acknowledged children by various women, two of whom - Bella and Esther Freud - have forged high-profile creative careers of their own, as fashion designer and novelist respectively. Freud's wives and lovers include Kitty Garman, Caroline Blackwood, Bernadine Coverly, Susie Boyt and, most recently, the journalist Emily Bearn, who was 27 when she began a three-year affair with the then 78-year-old painter.

By his own admission Freud was the opposite of an attentive father while his brood was growing up. Painting consumed him, and his reputation was growing. For years he and Francis Bacon inspired one another. "Bacon was the person to whom Freud turned for stimulus, for provocation, for dash," William Feaver wrote, and the friendship lasted until the late 1970s. Meanwhile, Freud's daughters sat for him, sometimes naked, in order to spend time with him. "That's how I got to know him," says Esther. "We'd never lived in the same city before."

The relationship of painter to sitter - a paradoxical one of intimacy and detachment, exploitation, conspiracy and friendship - is at the heart of his work. The subject affects Freud's perception so entirely, they must even sit while he paints the background, as though their very breath changes the setting. He once told the critic Martin Gayford that while painting a new and voluptuous model, he had an "an extremely strange feeling that there was nothing there". Two days later, she committed suicide.

At the age of 70 he decided to paint himself naked for the first time (Painter Working, Reflection 1993), but found it an intensely difficult task to get the facial expression right. Other people, he implied, are laid bare literally and figuratively by the intensity of his gaze, but turning that gaze upon himself required all the courage he could muster. "The psychological element is more difficult," he said. "The first time I reworked it, it turned out to be my father."

Nowadays his working methods are rigidly disciplined. His studio in Holland Park, London, with its thickly paint-encrusted walls, the props from his pictures lying around - the chair, the bed, the racks of sheets - is still the strict focus of his life in London. Sitters are treated to champagne and poetry recitals, though Freud has also been known to turn the air blue when a brush stroke goes wrong. Of course, he no longer has money worries. Freud is the most expensive European painter alive today. Just last month Christie's sold an urban landscape painted in the 1970s for more than £2m.

If Freud's private life remains intriguingly unsettled - he is said to have recently taken up with a young female solicitor - his overwhelming obsession has not changed in more than 60 years. "I think the most dangerous thing for an artist would be to be pleased with one's work simply because it is one's own," he has said. "One wants every picture to be better than its predecessors. Otherwise, what's the point?" In an age of Saatchi-sponsored gimmickry, Freud, the elder statesman, just wants to paint.

'Lucian Freud: Latest Paintings' is at the Wallace Collection, 31 March to 18 April

'Lucian Freud in the Studio: Photographs by David Dawson' is at the National Portrait Gallery, 30 March to 1 August

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