The painter Gwen John suffered from jealousy in her relationship with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. She was 27 when she started to model for him. He was 63. Rodin slept with a lot of women during his lifetime and the women he slept with also posed for him. John was jealous of Rodin’s other women. She was deeply in love with him. Throughout their tempestuous affair, she continued to paint, her paintings becoming ever more distilled and intense. She wrote in a letter: ‘I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life.’ In her work she showed no dependence on Rodin’s romantically charged, monumental style. Her paintings were usually very small, her focus narrow. She always knew what she wanted. Even as a student at the Slade School of Art, her talent for clear observation was completely formed.
Gwen John’s artistic style owes no debt to the two men with whom she was intimately involved: Rodin and her brother, Augustus John. Yet, when she is referred to publicly, her stature as an artist is qualified by the information that she was the lover of one and the sister of the other. She is often described as an artist ‘in her own right’. I hate that term: it implies that ‘her’ position as an artist is established only in relation to her circumstances. ‘She’ will never be seen as simply a great artist. The term ‘in her own right’ is used most often about women. I hate the word ‘muse’, too.
‘Longing’ is the emotion that drives Gwen John’s art. It is also the emotion that fuelled Charlotte Brontë’s writing. She fell passionately in love with her teacher, Monsieur Héger, when she studied at his language school in Brussels. When she returned home, his wife intervened to stop the exchange of letters between her husband and his infatuated English student. Charlotte pined for him. She channelled her yearning into her art. Jane Eyre is the result. These two women, Gwen John and Charlotte Brontë, are the artists to whom I feel most deeply connected. Longing powers my own art.
In the second volume of William Feaver’s biography of Lucian Freud (Bloomsbury, £35), David Dawson, Lucian’s long-serving assistant, describes Susanna Chancellor, the woman who remained Lucian’s partner longer than anyone else, as ‘a proper woman, not one of these neurotics’. She is the girlfriend who replaced me.
People don’t become artists if they are sane and well-adjusted. The world is indulgent towards the neurotic male artist. The more impossible his behaviour, the more he is valued. The world disapproves of neurosis in a female artist. This disapproval fills her with shame and undermines her confidence. Lucian was attracted to young women artists precisely because they were neurotic. He was drawn to their vulnerability. There is a sad pattern to this biography: the long list of sensitive young women, one after another, who fall for Lucian and, when they become too dependent and needy, are dumped by him. He always encouraged the infatuation, needing their dependence, until he felt too claustrophobic to stand them any longer.
Lucian didn’t like to be thought of in connection with other artists. He resented that his paintings were often compared to the pedantic realism of Stanley Spencer, and it irritated him that people presumed he’d been influenced by the Neue Sachlichkeit movement – the painters Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad who were active during Lucian’s childhood in Berlin. It came to an end, along with the Weimar Republic, in 1933, the year that Lucian and his family fled to England.
Lucian once told William Feaver: ‘I want to be beyond compare.’ But he was pleased if he was compared to Rodin. He was excited by the parallels in their lives. He liked to tell me how delighted he was that he had the same birthday, 8 December, as Rodin’s lover, the sculptor Camille Claudel, while Suzy Boyt, the mother of four of his children, had the same birthday as Rodin: 12 November. Lucian thought this showed that their relationship had a special significance. My birthday is 11 November.
Lucian owned several sculptures by Rodin, including the statue of Balzac that Lucian placed in his small hallway; it confronted every visitor to his flat in Holland Park. Another Rodin statue, entitled Iris, stood on a low round table in the sitting-room, in front of Francis Bacon’s painting of two men wrestling on a bed, known as ‘The Buggers’. Rodin’s Iris is a headless figure, her legs are splayed, her genitals the central vortex of the whole erotically charged form. Many of Lucian’s naked portraits remind me of this sculpture. Time and again the figures, with splayed legs, are lying down under his forensic scrutiny. In these paintings, Lucian always started with the genitals, and the composition grew out from this focal point.
In the catalogue to an exhibition of Lucian’s drawings at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, Leigh Bowery asks him: ‘In your work the pictures of naked women are always of straight women, while the pictures of naked men are always of gay men. Why is that?’ Lucian replies: ‘I’m drawn to women by nature and to queers because of their courage.’ His answer is brilliant, but typically evasive. He doesn’t reveal what Leigh really wants to know, i.e. are the naked portraits always about desire, and is that why there are no naked portraits of gay women or straight men? William Feaver (or ‘Villiam’ as Lucian called him) is a straight man and Lucian never painted him.
There is a strange tempo to his book. Lucian’s words, intermingled with Feaver’s, create the impression that nefarious goings-on are deliberately being concealed by the pace and the wit of the conversation, almost like a pair of conjurors using patter to distract the audience. Lucian’s ability to dodge a question is complemented by Feaver’s speedy prose; he is also very careful to allow Lucian to have his way by avoiding any kind of psychological interpretation of the paintings, even when the images are loaded with sexual symbolism. You don’t have to know Francis Beaumont’s 17th-century parody The Knight of the Burning Pestle to see what a pestle and mortar signify. Yet Feaver goes out of his way to explain that there is no intended meaning in the pestle and mortar placed so surreally at Lucian’s mother’s feet in Large Interior, W9, the double portrait of her with his lover Jacquetta Eliot.
Rodin’s life and Lucian’s life were different in one important aspect. Rodin had just one son, by his companion Rose Beuret. Lucian had numerous children by many different women. Neither Rodin nor Lucian involved themselves in their children’s upbringing. Rodin made sure that his son was looked after by Rose’s sister, Thérèse, so that Rose could continue to ‘be there’ for him.
When I first met William Feaver, I had recently had a baby: Lucian’s and my son, Frank Paul, whom I had left with my mother. My mother was Frank’s main carer during his babyhood and early childhood. I left him with her so that I could continue to paint, and so that I could continue to sit for Lucian. Before I got pregnant, I had started a big painting of my mother sitting on a bed with my four sisters. My father had died the previous year and the painting is full of grief. I continued working on it throughout my pregnancy and after the birth of my son. On the strength of this painting, which Charles Saatchi bought, my first dealer had started to represent me. I was due to have a solo exhibition at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery the year after I met William Feaver.
Here is his description of me on first sight:
We went off to dinner. I drove. He, in his immaculate grey flannel suit, twitched beside me all the way, giving directions to Mark’s Club, off Berkeley Square. Celia joined us there. She seemed silenced. Sitting with her beneath the ornately framed Victorian hunting scenes that set the tone of the décor, he touched her leg and she reached for his arm, peeking sidelong at him as he talked.
My first impressions of William Feaver were affected by the knowledge that he was sitting opposite me with his pregnant wife. I thought about how different their child’s upbringing would be from my own son’s. My silence was due, in part, to this. I was also remembering the last time I had come to this restaurant, three years previously, with Lucian and my father, then the bishop of Bradford.
I had felt proud of my father on that occasion, because he had recognised that the drawings on the walls were by Max Beerbohm and had impressed Lucian with his knowledge of art and culture. My father died from a brain tumour the year after this meeting. He left my mother no money. He never thought about saving from his small salary and the houses we lived in always belonged to the church. When he died, the church raised enough money for my mother to buy a little terraced house in Cambridge. This is the house where she was living with my son at the time of this dinner with Lucian, William Feaver and his wife, Andrea Rose.
Feaver asked me about my painting and I described Family Group, which I was still working on. He visited my studio a week or two later. He liked it but said he thought the figure of my sister Lucy needed ‘bulking out a bit at the bottom’. He didn’t sit for Lucian, but he did sit regularly for Frank Auerbach, Lucian’s closest friend. Frank supplies this book with many quotes about Lucian, his work, his friends and lovers. Feaver quotes his words about me:
I remember him saying that because Celia gradually found out that she wasn’t his only girlfriend she very often wept while she was sitting [for him] and she had no esteem at all because he preferred other people on occasion to her. And Lucian was really distressed and asked me what could he do to make her feel better about herself.
These words make me feel sad. Puzzled, too. Surely the way to make me feel better about myself was for Lucian to be faithful to me? Isn’t it natural to be upset if your boyfriend cheats on you?
When I met Lucian in the autumn of 1978, I was 18 and Lucian was 55. He was a visiting tutor at the Slade. I was keen to show him the first drawings and paintings I had made of my mother. I knew I had found my subject matter and I was excited to be making my first real works of art. And I had seen an exhibition of paintings by Lucian a few months before and had been especially struck by the paintings of his mother. I felt connected to him because of them.
I come from a family of sisters. I have no brothers. Lucian was my first lover. My father was head of an evangelical community in North Devon when I got into the Slade, aged 16. I had been brought up to regard sex outside marriage as a sin.
The first chapter of Feaver’s biography is devoted to Lucian’s involvement with Jacquetta Eliot, an heiress. He portrays her vividly: a sensationally beautiful diva who understood the rules of the sexual game that Lucian played – namely, making the other person jealous. She succeeded and beat Lucian at his own game. None of the other relationships that Lucian had in his later years receives as much attention. Years of my life are dealt with in a clumsy paragraph, in the context of a description of the painting Interior, W11 (After Watteau):
Her father had said, after meeting Freud for the first time, that he was ‘the most selfish man he’d ever met’. He died in 1983, the year she moved into the flat Freud bought for her, high in a building opposite the British Museum. After his death and following After Watteau, she painted her mother and sisters adrift on a bed: the remaining family lovingly nestled. Her son Frank was born on 10 December 1984. She took three weeks off in Cambridge after the birth at the Portland Hospital (which Freud paid for) before leaving the baby with her mother and returning to London. In After Watteau she sat with Bella, because of having to rest her hand on her knee, but not with the others.
I didn’t like sitting for Lucian. I felt trapped. I have never liked to be looked at, though I do like attention, of the right sort. I cried throughout the sittings for all of the paintings Lucian did of me: Naked Girl with Egg, After Watteau, Girl in a Striped Nightshirt, Painter and Model. (There is also a beautiful painting of my head and shoulders, with one hand lifted to my cheek and the curve of my naked breast just appearing from my white shirt – I don’t remember the title. It’s not often exhibited or reproduced.) I sat for him because I was in love with him. The last painting Lucian did of me was Painter and Model. Feaver quotes Auerbach:
Lucian was very aware of the fact that Celia wanted to paint and actually went out of his way to encourage her … That elaborate and, to me, not entirely successful picture of her and Angus … was partly done, I think, in order to make her feel better … Certainly he was concerned to keep his two sitters to hand for as long as he needed. The painting was completed in 1987. And that proved to be the end of the intimacy.
Again, I am more amused than upset by Auerbach’s interpretation of Lucian’s concern about my frustration at not being able to paint as much as I wanted. Surely the most effective way he could help me would be to spend some time with our son himself? My mother was Frank’s main carer, but I travelled regularly to Cambridge, usually every other day in the early years, and I was often exhausted. Doing a painting of me standing up was hardly a way to make me feel better about my own work. But Feaver is right in saying that this painting ‘proved to be the end of the intimacy’. I didn’t sit for Lucian again. He remained central to my life but gradually I fell out of love with him. I went on loving him, however.
Danny Moynihan, the son of Anne Dunn, one of Lucian’s lovers, was at the Slade with me. He arranged a show for some of us at Acquavella Galleries in New York in 1981. The work was at the Moynihans’ house, waiting to be shipped to the US, when, according to Dunn, ‘Lucian came round, walked straight in, took [Celia Paul’s] work away and that was that … Danny was mortified at setting all this up, such a slap in the face. Lucian would get a better gallery for her and he wanted control.’ Feaver asked Lucian about the incident. This is how Lucian remembered it, apparently: ‘Danny Moynihan got Celia’s paintings from the Slade and she said she wanted them back. He said: “Sorry, they’ve gone to America.” So I walked round to Redcliffe Road’ – where the Moynihans lived – ‘and took them.’
This anecdote seems crucial to me in understanding the dilemma young women face about their own ambition for their art, and their need to be loved and desired. The two ambitions are usually incompatible. When I told him about the exhibition in New York, Lucian said: ‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’ He advised me that it was essential to focus on one’s art without distractions of this kind, especially when one was young (I was 21). I sensed that he would disapprove of me, and love me less, if I went ahead with it. If, instead, he had encouraged me, my life might have been very different. William Acquavella was Lucian’s dealer from 1992 till the end of his life, selling his paintings for record-breaking prices.
One of Lucian’s last models was a former art student, Ria Kirby. He had met her when she was working as an assistant at the V&A, helping to hang an exhibition of his work. When Feaver asked David Dawson about the nature of Lucian’s involvement with her, David said: ‘Ria? She’d never dream of it. Never entered her head. To her he was an old man.’ Lucian was pleased with his new model: ‘She’s from a different social background. Something brand-newish about her but she’s so sensible, loves working at the V&A and was at Camberwell, painting where painting was discouraged. I’m very pleased. No hint of showing me her work, always a quarter of an hour early and since I’m always longing to start that’s good too.’ She posed right away to appreciable effect. ‘Lying on the bed she’s tragic.’
Ria was not one of ‘these neurotics’. She was not pushy about her own work. She was approved of by David and Lucian for these reasons. She decided when the time was right to stop sitting for Lucian. She told him that she didn’t want him to start another painting of her because she wanted to get married and have children sometime.
Reading about Ria reminds me of this ideal of straightforwardness, and how inhibiting and distressing it was for me to know that I couldn’t live up to it, even if I’d wanted to. Ria was never in love with Lucian. Love complicates things.
Gwen John sought out a life of solitude, a life lived in the shadows. Charlotte Brontë likened her writing process and that of her sisters to potatoes growing in a cellar. I know that women possess this particular power of interiority and silence. Perhaps the great women artists are nocturnal creatures who prefer to create freely in the darkness. In this way, too, they avoid being referred to as ‘one of these neurotics’. Perhaps they choose their overshadowing? If they go unnoticed they can be as madly inventive as they like, without making anyone jealous.
When Lucian died, I started to feel that I’d had enough of cellar life. Like Gwen John, I had continued to paint with complete dedication through very turbulent times. I had been represented by the same gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, for 25 years. In 2011, after Lucian’s death, I wrote to various galleries, hoping for a change. Simon Martin, the director of Pallant House in Chichester, suggested a joint exhibition of me and Gwen John. Victoria Miro saw the exhibition and liked my work. I am now represented by Victoria Miro and my life has been transformed. I am not often referred to as a ‘painter in her own right’. I still work and live alone, my aim is still silence and interiority, but I feel I am beginning to enjoy a certain freedom, in my work and in my life.
Feaver writes affectionately about Lucian’s sons: Ali Boyt, Freddy Eliot and my son, Frank. He describes him in a tender account:
In March 1998 Frank Paul (‘Young Frank’, to distinguish him from Frank Auerbach) had sat the scholarship exams for King’s School Canterbury. He was successful and consequently on a Sunday in September Lucian went down to Canterbury to see him and the other newly enrolled scholars blessed in the cathedral … Lucian said: ‘Frank looked awfully good and got into trouble, as he’s so dreamy and had mould on his gown.’ ‘He’s always reading,’ his housemaster said. ‘He’ll be fine.’ (He was to win prizes for academic excellence and German and proceed to Cambridge.)
It meant a great deal to me, as of course it did to Frank, that he and his father formed a real relationship. Frank grew closer to his father when he started to sit for him. Unfortunately for Lucian, Frank was about to go away to university. He was studying languages and spent a lot of time abroad. The painting was never finished. Feaver quotes Lucian discussing Frank in 2004, when he was studying in Russia: ‘Poor little Frank’s been robbed: his glasses, his passport, credit cards, everything. He was held up in the street. Basically, he’s OK. It’s only just happened. Didn’t want to come back at all. He’s very affected by how people are to him.’
Frank and I spent some time with Lucian on the last day of his life. We were shown into his bedroom by Lucian’s daughter Rose Boyt, who told Frank that one of the nurses had said that the last sense to leave a dying person is their sense of hearing, so Frank should say a few words to his father, if he felt inclined. Rose and I left the room. I’ve often wondered what last words I would have spoken to Lucian, if I had been given this opportunity.