Most of us would be embarrassed if private letters we’d written in the notorious naïveté of youth were read by strangers. It’s hard to say for sure what Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, would think of the fact that 10 missives he wrote in high school will soon be on the auction block at Sotheby’s in London. The British painter famously refused to reveal much about his early life, so it seems doubtful he would be pleased about the impending sale of his childhood correspondence.
The letters reveal a side of him to which we’re not often privy, shedding insight on the young man he was and the artist he became. They were written in the early 1940s to the poet and essayist Stephen Spender, with whom Freud was very close — they once spent a month together hiding out from the blitz in a retired miner’s house in Wales. Though Spender was 13 years older, Freud doesn’t sound like he’s trying to come across any more mature than he is. Instead, he’s playful and even silly, pontificating in a nonsensical style that’s riddled with spelling and grammar errors.
“Cedric has painted a portrait of me which is absolutely amazing. It is exactly like my face is green it is a marvelous picture,” he gushes in one note from 1941, possibly referencing his teacher Cedric Morris’s portrait from that same year. He continues with the unrelated query: “Do you realise that if you shaved your nose every day you would soo grow a reasonable beard on it?”
Freud’s letters are sometimes so disjointed that it feels intentional. Most of the time, he was writing on paper washed in hazy watercolors and filled with humorous doodles. The effect feels less like reading typical correspondence and more like examining whimsical art objects created by a dreamy, excitable teenager in the privacy of his bedroom.
However, some believe the letters crack open a door onto a mysterious corner of his biography. Though Freud was a notorious womanizer (he is believed to have fathered dozens of children), some have questioned the nature of his relationship with the bisexual Spender. The letters now seem to offer evidence in support of the theory that the two had an affair. In one letter, from 1941, he thanks the writer for sending him a book, adding, “I read it again and again at night thinking of you.” He also addresses Spender affectionately as “Spethan,” “Schuster,” and “Step-hanio” — which doesn’t necessarily seem so unusual — and signs his name as “Lucilei,” “Lucio Fruit,” and “Lucionus Fruitata” — which does.
“To call yourself as a teenager a luscious fruit to a known and practicing homosexual suggests either a relationship — not necessarily completely physical — or teasing of an improbable kind,” Freud biographer John Sutherland speculated in an interview with the Daily Mail. “I’m persuaded there was a mutually acceptable sexual relationship.”
Whatever the letters may or may not reveal about Freud’s sexuality seven decades later — and however that does or doesn’t change our understanding of a brilliant, eccentric artist — they are a joy to peruse. As Oliver Barker, Senior International Specialist Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s, said in a statement, “While relatively little is known about Freud’s teenage life, the emergence of these letters is a sensational moment, providing a glimpse into the workings of a truly artistic mind.”