Champagne and gossip - my life with Lucian Freud

Rebecca Wallersteiner reveals what it was like working as the artist's assistant and confidante for six years


February 9, 2012
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Freud in his studio

Freud in his studio

The National Portrait Gallery is celebrating the life and work of the late Lucian Freud by holding a major retrospective of his drawings and paintings, which opened yesterday. Lucian died last summer, aged 88. I knew him well in the late 1980s and worked with him for six years, buying his paints, champagne and helping to organise exhibitions.

I received an education about art and life by being around Lucian - he was witty, clever and mercurial. Some women have written that they experienced him as being cold and misogynist, but I found him very funny and a wonderful conversationalist. If Lucian liked you, he was great to be with.

Although he was nearly 70 when I knew him he showed little sign of ageing. His vitality and drive were extraordinary, and although I was around 40 years younger than he was, he had far more energy than I did. He usually rose at dawn and his first sitter would arrive soon after. The last often left around midnight.

Being a creature of the night, that would be the time he would ring me to chat, virtually every evening - it was like having a friendship with a vampire. Even this late, and after many hours of work, he would relax by gossiping before bedtime - his not mine. It did not matter that I frequently complained that he was keeping me from my sleep.

Throughout the years I worked for Lucian, I kept an almost daily diary. The following extracts reveal, I think, something of the complex man I knew.

● August 17 1989: "Lucian came to my office at 5.30pm and told me that his mother died last night. He speaks softly with a slight accent and is enigmatic with strange, haunting eyes. Today he seemed paler and more intense than the first time we met. We talked about death as he will be attending his mother's funeral tomorrow. Lucian looked fragile and finely sensitive - he has a sensuous and cruel mouth. His clothes and hands were paint-stained."

Lucian said that he had enjoyed a good relationship with his parents. Like many Jewish men he adored his mother, Lucie (née Brasch), who was German-Jewish; Ernst, his father, was Austrian-Jewish. He was very kind to Lucie after his father died. She was devastated and Lucian would collect her every morning and use her as his sitter to keep her company. With her strong, rather severe features she looked like Lucian, and his portraits of her are among his best.

● March 20 1989: "Lucian asked me to refuse a possible interview with German TV today. The subject was to have been a British intellectual's opinions about the reunification of Germany. Lucian, when asking me to refuse, had commented in a rather acidic tone: 'The best thing about Germany was the Berlin Wall'. He quoted Churchill: 'The Germans: they are at your feet, they are at your throat'. I felt a little uncomfortable hearing this, being a Prussian - in a way - but then, so is Lucian!'"

Lucian was morose when the Berlin Wall was torn down, as he feared the reunification of Germany. His parents fled Berlin with their three sons in 1933, when Lucian was 11, and arrived in Britain as refugees. One of his early drawings is titled Refugees. More than 50 years would pass before Lucian would agree to show his paintings in Berlin, at an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie. He never forgave the Austrians for their treatment of his grandparents. Sigmund Freud and his wife, Martha, and refused to exhibit in Vienna. Although, bizarrely, he admitted that he had cheered Hitler when he had seen him in one of the spetacular Berlin parades.

● June 6 1992: "I remember watching the Reichstag burn down, when I was a child, shortly after Hitler came to power - it was very exciting." - Lucian

Lucian's German accent was the same as my mother's, also originally a Berliner. Although he disliked hearing the language spoken, he occasionally sung me lines from Brecht's Threepenny Opera, in German, rather tunefully. He seemed to be in denial about his Jewishness and didn't like me to broach the subject, although it is something we had in common and he certainly inherited plenty of chutzpah! His first wife, Kitty, was the daughter of the Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein, and their marriage produced two daughters, Annie and Annabel.

● June 6 1992: "I vividly remember walking around the vast gardens of the Palace of Sanssouci on the outskirts of Berlin, with my nanny, in the late 1920s, hating it and planning to give her the slip." - Lucian

Lucian said that he had sometimes felt stifled by his loving parents and materially comfortable childhood. He enjoyed a good relationship with Sigmund, who indulged his lively, tear-away grandson. He accidentally burnt down one school by smoking in bed.

Unlike his friend, the painter R B Kitaj, Lucian did not explore his Jewish history and identity. He listened when I recounted my experiences of travelling around Israel, and in particular Jerusalem. His powerful portrait of the artist Frank Auerbach, his close friend, who arrived in England via the Kindertransport, is included in the current retrospective.

● November 5 1991: "I visited Lucian at 6.25pm. He was watching television when I arrived and asked: 'Do you know that Robert Maxwell was found drowned this morning. It looks likely that he committed suicide as Jacob Rothschild told me that Maxwell had lost around a billion. It is always rather surreal when such a larger than life character dies'."

Lucian would often ask me to buy him five or six newspapers, including The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Mail and Mirror, when he was expecting me and skim-read most of the pile to see what the world was saying about him. He was fascinated with the larger than life, ruthless personality of Robert Maxwell. I spoke to Maxwell a couple of times in the mid 1980s, while working as the late Lord Rothermere's personal assistant, off Fleet Street. My father, who had first encountered Maxwell in ruined post-war Berlin, disagreed with Lucian, believing that his mysterious death was probably not suicide, as, "Captain Bob just wasn't the type to kill himself".

● September 4 1992: "Please ring Cornelissen's and order six tubes of Cremnitz white, 12 tubes of Payne's grey, six tubes of Rose Madder and 12 tubes of Veron Grune Erde paint for me." - Lucian

Another of my Freudian tasks was to order his paints - he favoured Cremnitz white, now banned, apart from specialised use, as it is packed with lead and highly toxic.

It was fascinating to watch the paintings gradually taking shape. A portrait could take up to 50 or 100 sittings to complete.

During my era Lucian was painting the art critic Bruce Bernard, an artist couple - Angus and Cerith - his whippet, Pluto, and also large nudes of the outlandish performance artist Leigh Bowery. He plied his sitters with a little vintage Louis Roederer champagne to keep them compliant, as after many hours, sitting can become an ordeal.

(He occasionally shared half a bottle with me while we were composing letters together, which was very welcome.)

Lucian's studio was like an installation, with hundreds of accrued layers of muddy coloured paint on the door and the walls which he used as an extension of his palette. It was a privilege to have watched him paint, although it was not safe to sit on his paint-splattered sofa and one often left with stained clothes.

Lucian loathed women wearing make-up. He remarked that make-up "acted as a mask and hid the person beneath". In this he reminded me of one short-lasting German boyfriend who once ordered me to "go scrub your face, as I see dirt on it" when I was wearing a little eye-shadow.

Though I have known many artists, I have never met another with Lucian's special charm, caustic wit and hint of menace. There was always a feeling of impending danger in his company. London is a poorer place without Lucian - I miss him.

'Lucian Freud Portraits' is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 until May 27

Last updated: 11:33am, February 9 2012