As great a portrait painter as Lucian Freud was, you wouldn’t want him to depict Santa Claus for your Christmas cards. Either the jolly old elf’s face would be seen in close-up, revealing laugh lines as wrinkles and dimples as warts, or he would be shown lying full-length on a dirty futon totally naked, a bowlful of human jelly.

This isn’t to say that Freud’s late paintings are anywhere near the violent grotesqueries of Francis Bacon or the thickly layered semi-abstractions of Frank Auerbach, both his longtime friends. Tastes will differ, but none of these three artists — titans of 20th-century British art — produced work that could be described as pretty or attractive. Yet even when you don’t like what you see, there’s no doubt that it’s art — and haunting, upsetting, unforgettable art, at that.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, and it sometimes seems as though he managed to live out all the impulses that the founder of psychoanalysis claimed, approvingly, that most civilized people repress. Totally self-centered, full of loathing for his mother, alienated from his two brothers, Freud was obsessed with art, women, gambling, the upper classes and thugs. He seems to have slept with most of his female models, except his daughters (whom he painted nude). No one, by the way, is quite sure about the number of his children, though Freud himself acknowledged 14, two by his first wife and at least a dozen by various girlfriends.

Geordie Greig — editor of the Mail on Sunday — got to know the painter during the last decade of Freud’s life, when the two would often share breakfast at a Notting Hill restaurant. “In that quiet space,” writes the biographer, “Lucian’s conversation ranged from dating Greta Garbo to the best way to land a punch without breaking your thumb, to how he had popped in to 10 Downing Street to see Gordon Brown, or had been to a nightclub with Kate Moss, or had sold a picture for an eye-watering sum.” Freud might then change the subject to “how Chardin, in 1735, had painted ‘the most beautiful ear in art’ in a picture called The Young Schoolmistress.”

From childhood, Freud was fiercely independent, secretive and pugnacious, often getting into fights even in old age. “In the 1960s,” writes Greig, “the Thane of Cawdor” — how wonderful that there are still thanes of Cawdor — “crept up to him at the Cuckoo Club in Piccadilly at around 4 a.m. and lit a newspaper that he was reading. Lucian hit him in the face before they sat down and shared a drink and a cigar. In his eighties, Lucian had a fist fight in a supermarket in Holland Park after a dispute at the checkout.” (As I said, the painter seems to have acted on all our own repressed desires.) Greig neatly sums up Freud: “All his life he got away with it” — and “it” could be just about anything.

’Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain's Great Modern Painter’ by Geordie Greig (Farrar Straus Giroux. 260 pp. $30) (Farrar Straus Giroux)

In his youth, Freud was movie-star handsome, lean, curly-haired and intense, as well as attractive to both sexes. Besides women, he entranced the bisexual poet Stephen Spender — for my money, the best-connected figure in all 20th-century English literary history — and the heterosexual cultural grandee Cyril Connolly. In later years, Freud possessed the aura of a down-at-the-heels dandy, often wearing an unironed but handmade white shirt, a silk scarf tied rakishly around his neck, a shabby but expensive cashmere overcoat and black workman’s boots. “When he flew to New York to see a show of his work,” remarks Greig, “ he packed just one shirt which he carried in a plastic bag.” At once extravagant and bohemian, Freud was notably generous to his sitters, often giving them paintings and sometimes even houses. He paid for his meals with crisp 50-pound notes and kept wads of cash secreted around his studio.

The love of Freud’s early life proved to be an equally free-spirited married woman named Lorna Wishart, a daughter of the notoriously wild Garman family, who was then carrying on a simultaneous affair with the poet Laurie Lee (now best remembered for his memoir “Cider with Rosie”). When Lorna broke off with Freud because he began cheating on her with a younger woman, the artist turned around and married her niece Kitty. But during the first year of that marriage, the painter started seeing an 18-year-old named Anne Dunn on the side. Here’s where relationships become exponentially complicated, in a Bloomsbury-Brideshead sort of way:

“One time in Lucian’s studio, Anne was struck by some pictures she saw stacked up there, painted by Lorna’s son Michael. Two years after Lucian started an affair with Anne, she married Michael, and Michael then confessed to Anne that he had had a brief sexual relationship with Lucian. To complete the circle, Kitty later revealed to her daughter Annie that she had had an affair with her aunt Lorna’s former lover and rival to Lucian: Laurie Lee.” Matters don’t stop there, not by a long shot. Having lost Freud to Anne, his wife, Kitty, began a liaison with the novelist Henry Green. Lucian then met and soon wed Lady Caroline Blackwood, “heart-stoppingly beautiful,” according to composer Ned Rorem, as well as the heir to Guinness money through her mother. Blackwood went on to write macabre, darkly comic novels and to marry twice more — her third husband was the poet Robert Lowell, who died in a New York taxicab clutching one of Freud’s portraits of her. When biographer Greig reveals that Blackwood’s daughter Ivana later became his girlfriend, one is hardly even surprised. But then virtually all these intertwinings continue even unto the third generation. For instance, Freud tried to seduce the 22-year-old girlfriend of Francis Wishart, who was the grandson of his lover Lorna Wishart and the son of his lovers Anne Dunn and Michael Wishart. Whoever coined the phrase “No sex, please, we’re British,” clearly didn’t move in artistic circles.

While Greig does discuss Freud’s art, dwelling on the late nudes rather than the more likable early portraits, he’s hardly Erwin Panofsky. His main focus in “Breakfast with Lucian” is gossip and scandal and naughtiness among the rich, gifted and socially prominent. He also lingers over Freud’s gambling and his dealings with criminals, including the infamous Kray brothers. To pay off Freud’s debts, one shrewd bookie, himself a betting man, regularly accepted art in lieu of cash and ended up “owning twenty-five paintings, possibly the largest collection of Lucian’s work in private hands.”

In stark contrast, the billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Goldsmith once told Freud that if he ever painted Goldsmith’s daughter, he would have the artist murdered. A charming monster, Lucian Freud never lied about himself or his personal life, yet resolutely believed that “the only point of getting up every morning” was “to paint, to make something good, to make something even better than before, not to give up, to compete, to be ambitious.” He lived to be 88, unstoppable and shocking to the last.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday
in The Washington Post.


The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter

By Geordie Greig

Farrar Straus Giroux. 260 pp. $30