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5 June 2024

Love, loathing and Lucian Freud

Rose Boyt’s memoir of her controlling father reveals a relationship defined by cruelty and shame.

By Sue Prideaux

Lucian Freud’s 1977-78 portrait of his 18-year-old daughter Rose Boyt naked with her legs splayed has invariably raised the question: “Did they, or didn’t they?” Her first novel, Sexual Intercourse, recounting a girl’s sexually charged relationship with her father, did nothing to unboggle minds.   

Hers was never an ordinary story. Two days after her birth, Lucian’s idea of celebration was to bring round a couple of lobsters. Her mother boiled them in the nappy bucket where they thrashed about as lobsters do if you boil them alive, and the air escaping from their shells makes screaming noises. Rose’s mother was allergic to lobster.

Dalí’s telephone with its lobster handset pinged into my mind. Surrealism’s random juxtapositions of the bizarre, the incongruous and the disgusting characterises the first part of the book. A naked model wanders round Freud’s Notting Hill studio playing with his pet rat. The performance artist Leigh Bowery, a favourite model, gets new electric teeth (electric teeth?) necessitating a cheek piercing to accommodate the wiring. A school friend takes a “joy ride” on the penis of her own father’s best friend. A sex worker makes paintings with her own blood. Lucian makes a spectacular exhibition of picking his nose. It makes Rose feel sick. At the age of eight or nine, Lucian’s touch feels wrong to Rose; at the same age she fights off her mother’s lover, a ghoulish Flying Dutchman figure who smuggles contraband on rotting hulks and abandons Rose and her mother penniless in Trinidad, where she’s terrified of the screams, squawks and munching noises in the jungle. The soundtrack to her father’s studio is hardly more reassuring. Mostly he talks about sex as he paints her.

We do learn a few other things. Freud hates the moon, he claims ignorance of the Oedipus complex, hates certain Van Gogh paintings, loves horses so much he is happy to eat horsemeat. He recalls Eartha Kitt playing Helen of Troy in Orson Welles’s production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with Welles eating and shouting throughout. The portrait is interrupted when Lucian sends Rose to New York, without enough money, as usual, leaving her to the mercy of fate – which in this instance takes the shape of Andy Warhol, who proposes marriage and draws a ring on her finger. She snaps a photo which she will later use on the cover of this book.

Back in Notting Hill, Andrew Parker Bowles (married to Camilla and being cuckolded by our now-King) poses for his portrait. Lucian leaves Rose alone with him. She’s on her knees with mop and bucket, having fallen from model to studio cleaner. It makes her feel “downtrodden and loved”. Parker Bowles advises her that cleaning the worn floorboards would not make any difference to them. He and Freud gallop in Hyde Park on their beloved horses. Glamour and squalor persist in the countryside near Bath where maternal grandmother Linda lives in emotional deep freeze and Haile Selassie is a neighbour; a family photo shows the emperor-god of the Rastafarian religion peering warily at a duck. A group of barefoot Rastas occupy Rose’s psychiatric ward, knocking out the rhythms of their religious chants on broken NHS radiators.

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Lucian’s only serious rival in control of Rose is her psychotherapist. Can he really be called Bridges? Such an obvious name if you think about it. Rose is utterly dependent on Bridges and he, unless I am mistaken about therapy, abuses his power horribly by telling her she is MAD and DELUSIONAL (Rose’s capitals). Lucian denounces therapy as an American parlour game played by crooks. He calls Bridges THE VENAL SADIST (her caps again) but pays for the therapy. By cheque. Often made out to the wrong name, for the wrong amount. She has to go back to beg all over again.

Lucian believed that money was a weapon, literally capable of killing. Cheques were useful small arms in the war of coercive control, but cash was nuclear power. Wads unrolled from pockets launched exquisite humiliations.

Rose was one of her mother’s five illegitimate children, one of Lucian’s 14 children, or maybe more – nobody knows for sure. The tangle of sibling jealousy is pitiful: a ruthless scrabble for famous Daddy’s love. He tweaks the chain in so many humiliating ways. Nobody actually wants the unlovable ancestral furniture but when he gives it to a son jealousy erupts. He takes it back and gives it to Rose. She is triumphant. This is manipulation on a domestic scale à la François Mauriac’s Le Nœud de Vipères and you can even see how he’s channelling King Lear – but two stories Lucian tells Rose, one involving coprophagia (look it up) and the other the sadistic anal humiliation of children, are the most repulsive things I have ever read.

Rose is conditioned beyond judgement or outrage by the utterly banal cruelty of the everyday exchanges, and by her shame at her complicity by default in acquiescence, “as though I had been hypnotised”. She is still in thrall to her father after his death when, in 2016 she reads her diaries from 1989 and 1990. Here the book changes gear. Sixty-four pages of top-speed surrealist crash-splat give way to 300 pages of apparently unedited old diary lightly interspersed with her comments. When you’re writing a diary you don’t explain who is who. You don’t include surnames. Lola is on the phone asking for Sellotape. Roger is very kind. Who the hell are these people? Who is Carole? The death of Sean is obviously ghastly for Rose but as you have no idea who Sean is, you really cannot sympathise with her deep grief, much as you’d like to. This part of the book reads like a soap opera with a vast cast of uncharacterised characters where you have missed all the vital episodes.

Revisiting the diary may be tiresome for us but it is mercifully therapeutic for Rose, though what really gets her back on track happens earlier, when Lucian appoints her his executrix. Rose the ex-communist uber-chaotic, super-bohemian wild child finds validation through the good old bourgeois values: money + position = recognition = self-respect. She marries, has children. She takes care of her parents in their dying days. She is sufficiently healed to dedicate this book to both parents “with love and gratitude”. We remember Philip Larkin’s observation that “They f*** you up, your mum and dad”, and we applaud Rose’s magnanimity.

Naked Portrait: A Memoir of Lucian Freud
Rose Boyt
Picador, 416pp, £22

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[See also: The insular world of Rachel Cusk]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024