Ten previously unpublished letters written by the teenage artist Lucian Freud to his friend, the iconic poet and critic Stephen Spender (1909–1995), have been put up for auction by the Spender family, after 70 years. The letters cast a light on the formative years of one of the most influential British artists of the 20th-century, they also uncover a sexual relationship between the two men. Freud sired 14 children, with up to 30 unconfirmed, others. He also had affairs with more women than we are able to record without blushing, however rumours have long been whispered that the teenage Freud had an affair with an older man. We now know this to be the poet Stephen Spender.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011) was perceived as being so reluctant to talk about his late teenage years that he came under criticism for constructing his own, mythical narrative of his youth. Oliver Barker, Senior International Specialist Contemporary Art: “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. More than just letters, they are artworks in their own right. Filled with drawings and watercolours, they show the workings of the artist, reflecting his artistic output at the time.”
The letters date to the early years of World War II (1939-1942) when Freud was studying under the tutelage of Cedric Morris at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, Essex – one of the only art schools to stay open during the war. Freud and Spender had met when the artist was still a pupil at Bryanston and Spender was thinking of becoming a teacher. Their families were well known to each other, living in the same building at Maresfield Gardens in North London, and despite a thirteen year age gap, Freud and Spender became close friends.
The relationship was to prove decisive in this crucial period of the artist’s early career. Spender was the subject of many works by Freud in 1940, mostly conceived during the month the two spent together at a retired miner’s house in Wales that the artist had rented to escape the bombing in London. One portrait, an early oil painting, became the artist’s first published work when later that year Spender printed it in the influential Horizon magazine which he co-edited – a hugely significant opportunity for a young artist not even out of his teens.
Filled with affection, delight and the unexpected, the boyish letters reveal the wild imagination of a witty young artist at the outset of his career. Populated by drawings and watercolour paintings, one letter shows a man pulling a miniature horse on a lead, in another, a figure balances on the head of a flying bird and a small man rides a horse atop an ear.
Addressed to ‘Spethan’, ‘Schuster’ or ‘Step-hanio’ and signed off ‘Lucelli’, ‘Lucio Fruit’ or ‘Lucionus Fruitata’, he delights in preposterous scenarios and impossible situations: “Do you realise that if you shaved your nose every day you would soo grow a reasonable beard on it?” (Benton End, Hadleigh in Suffolk 1941)
At the very heart of the collection is a letter from 1940 featuring what one can assume to be a self-portrait possibly based on Cedric Morris’s portrait of Freud, now in the Tate collection. Alongside the drawing Freud writes: “Cedric has painted a portrait of me which is absolutely amazing. It is exactly like my face is green it is a marvellous picture”.
“Do write to me very soon and when you feel very low look at these figures and make the Freud-Schuster squint three times best love lucio” (from the Shoulder of Mutton, Hadleigh. Suffolk, 1939/40)
The letters will be on public exhibition for the first time at Sotheby’s, 34-25 New Bond Street, from 27th June to 1st July.
The combined estimate is £28,000-42,000.