A singular portraitist. A tireless hedonist. A dear friend

Lucian Freud was one of London's great characters – and one of the world's great artists. Geordie Greig celebrates his life

Saturday 23 July 2011 00:00 BST

At 9pm last night waiters at London's Wolseley restaurant, where Lucian Freud dined most nights, covered his corner table with a black table cloth and lit a single candle in tribute to the greatest realist painter of the 20th century.

Freud lived always to paint and he died quietly at his home surrounded by his family. He painted to the very end; until a few days ago he was still working on a vast portrait of David Dawson, his devoted assistant of 20 years, sitting naked beside his whippet Eli. It was almost completed. Aged 88, he was also finishing a female nude and two etchings.

For almost 70 years his focus was to create in paint what he saw before him in all its intense reality. He once quoted T S Eliot's advice to himself in "Portrait of a Lady" on how to get in the right mood for creating art: "And I must borrow every changing shape/ To find expression — dance, dance,/ Like a dancing bear, Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape." His vision was raw, naked, intense and undisturbed, be it of his dying mother, a naked man with a rat by his genitals, his own naked self-portrait aged 70.

It was an extraordinary life: escaping Hitler's culling of the Jews in Berlin where he was born, arriving in England aged 10, becoming a naturalised British subject in 1939, always drawing and painting with ambition and intensity. Grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, he rose to his own huge prominence on the global stage, his art the most highly priced of any living artist.

Twice-married, he had many lovers, at least a dozen children, an eclectic coterie of loyal friends. For a man who was intensely private and supposedly reclusive he actually got out a lot. Into his mid-80s he skated at Sting's Christmas party in the Wiltshire countryside, watched the ballet at Covent Garden and then ended up at Annabel's dancing with Kate Moss until 3am. Almost every day at Sally Clarke's restaurant in Kensington Church Street he had breakfast and lunch, then dinner at the Wolseley with one of his many children, grandchildren or friends. Or more often than not with Dawson.

I first wrote to Freud when I was 17. No reply. For many years I wrote asking for an interview. I heard from friends he had received my missives and was mildly amused by my stalking. Then one day I opened a letter with handwriting so child-like that I first thought it was from my niece. "Dear Mr Greig, Your suggestion of interviewing me for my Tate show next year makes me sick. But if I am alive then I will consider it."

Then, when I was Sunday Times literary editor, I wrote asking him to review a book on Stanley Spencer, and he telephoned my office. Most startling was his German accent, and his view was clear. "I will consider it but I must tell you my art is not remotely like his."

Five years later in 2005, as a final throw of the dice, I wrote to say I had an idea but I could not tell him what it was. I expected no reply but my mobile rang at 6am. Meet me at 6.30am at my studio, he said.

My idea was not to interview him but to photograph his friend the painter Frank Auerbach. Would he consider also being in the picture as they always have breakfast together, and had done so for more than 40 years? It was a yes. Smithfield market at 5.30am for breakfast. My first sight of him was opening the door to his studio in striped butcher's trousers, a white shirt, Samuel Beckett intense, piercing eyes, but his manner utterly engaging and beguiling. His candour and charm were beyond that of anyone I have ever met. It was the beginning of a much cherished friendship and eventually an interview and many a breakfast.

Children were treated as his equals. My son Jasper learned from him the art of finger-drumming and saw Lucian do his only iPad and iPhone drawing, receiving a bar of nougat (Lucian's bizarre breakfast diet) on his 13th birthday, hand-delivered from Clarke's.

What does OM stand for, someone asked Jasper at breakfast with Lucian. He answered in innocence and without a sense of trying to be cheeky, suggesting "Old Man". Lucian laughed. He was also proud of being a member of the Order of Merit, Britain's highest honour.

He loved being on his own but not alone, choosing who he saw and when. He once told me if he had a chauffeur take him to a cinema he would then move to another theatre so that no one knew where he might be. He used pseudonyms when staying in hotels, always roaming free.

Freud painted day and night, often with three models on the go, but he also lived. He had danced with Garbo, stayed with Ian Fleming in Jamaica in the Forties, befriended Bacon, Spender, Auden and his oldest friend, Frank Auerbach, both arriving as Jewish refugees and changing the language of British art. He spent nights in a police cell, slept as a boy in stables alongside horses. His was a life that did not know dullness or boundaries. But always his day turned on a rigorous regime of painting round the clock. He wanted more than anything else to paint the best paintings. He also cared for the best things in life, but disdained any rules. He was as happy eating grilled kidneys with Auerbach in a Smithfields pub or lunching with the Queen's former private secretary at White's.

His prices rocketed and he became the most expensive living painter when Benefits Supervisor Sleeping fetched £17.2m. The price was of intense interest to him but not the money. As Wilde might have said, he knew the value of everything but not the price. Money was never a priority or even important except when he had none (beseeching letters as a young man were sent to his architect father, Ernst, son of Sigmund; at one time he was almost buried in debt through gambling ("no point betting unless you really fear what might happen" he said about the horses).

Jacob Rothschild once lent him cash but insisted it never happen again and he need never repay. Lucian turned up with grubby banknotes to clear the debt. He never owned a credit card, usually paid in cash. He never watched television and could recite Kipling or Goethe or sea ditties from his time in the merchant navy. He was always involved with many women and remained flirtatious until he died.

He rarely left London yet would in his last years occasionally hop on the Chunnel to see an exhibition in Paris or be taken on his American dealer's private jet to Madrid or Paris. The aim was always to see either the great paintings of the world or his own. Lucian was a draughtsman with the line of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a brilliant master of the human figure who was ignored for so many years by the museums and collectors only to be recognised latterly as one of the world's great artists.

He held the strongest views on art and enemies, loathing his brother Clement, for instance. He faced death threats from the Krays for his gambling debts, rode horses into his 80s, photographed Adolf Hitler when, as a child in Germany, he saw him drive by in a parade.

His taste was unswervingly good, his dandyism uniquely bohemian in his paint-splattered Huntsman suits and hobnailed boots. He was never predictable, turning up at someone's house with a live eel, once punching the Thane of Cawdor who lit his newspaper in the Cuckoo club at 2am and, at 82, getting into a fight in a shop in Holland Park.

I can remember ringing his doorbell to deliver a copy of the Evening Standard which he read religiously every day, loving to hate Brian Sewell. The door opened a crack and he lurched out threateningly, holding a bread knife towards me. His house was a mixture of linoleum floor with Rodin sculpture in the kitchen. Bare plaster, water-stained walls but also 18th-century furniture. He might roast a woodcock for breakfast but also loved a bar of nougat. He was beyond definition.

And he was the most loyal of friends, a father and grandfather adored to the end. His family gathered in the last few days and weeks to be with the man who had always spent all his time devoted to his art. "Of course, I am selfish," he said. "I always want to paint."

This article first appeared in yesterday's London Evening Standard

The view from the muse

Sue Tilley

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995

It was very interesting. And entertaining, and boring. It was quite mundane a lot of the time. There was a lot of waiting around reading Saturday supplements. What made it more exciting was that he was such an entertaining person. I just turned up on time. His main credential for a subject was that you just turned up on time. You needed to be there when you said you would. He was absolutely hilarious, especially in the way he used to try to manipulate you. I remember an art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, wrote something bad about him and he made me write an awful letter to him. He would also write lovely notes, in this big, childish handwriting. I remember he sent one of these notes to Prince Charles telling him that a painting that he wanted to buy wasn't for sale. He sent him a picture with "not for sale" scrawled on it. He'd talk to anyone like that.

Cozette McCreery

Irish Woman on a Bed, 2003-2004

I was Bella Freud's assistant for many years, and I first met him when I was in my early 20s. He was always in our studio; we would have lunch and teas with him. At that point, he asked me to pose, but I wasn't really confident about posing naked. Later, when Bella had her son, I took some time off and was going to go travelling when Lucian got wind of it. His assistant got in touch. By that point, I was in my early 30s. I thought we'd meet to discuss possibility but I got there and before I knew it ... I was posing naked. It was nine months of sitting, for about 15 hours a week. When you first sit you don't realise how physically strenuous it is. But he was good at making me feel at ease. We had a lot of mutual friends, and we would talk about both going to the Café de Paris at different times. He was very funny ... it was like having a very demanding boyfriend for about nine months. If you were late he would get furious. If he felt you weren't committed enough he would be very furious. At the time we worked together he had 10 other pictures on the go. It was a very serious job for him. When I was late once he threatened to throw the painting out the window.

Ria Kirby

Ria, Naked Portrait, 2007

It was an unusual experience in that it was every night for 18 months. It was great working for him, because I'm a painter and I was always inspired by him. I got a strong sense that he needed whoever he was working with to want to be there. He wanted them to be comfortable. We would go out for dinner in the evenings and he looked after me that way. I admired his dedication to painting. At 88, he was still working; he didn't ever want to take a night off. The painting was the most important thing. I admired his dedication, that was impressive. He was very engaging company; he knew Belloc's cautionary tales for children off by heart so he could turn the experience into something interesting. He wanted to know me, not just how I looked, and we became friends. That was important to his painting. He wanted me to be there. It shows in the work. I recently had a daughter and I introduced her to Lucian. That was fantastic. But if you're not sitting for him, there's not much time to see him. He was a very private person. He painted people he knew or cared about, so staying in contact made sense.

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