An unusual group of 11 previously unpublished letters – written by a young Lucian Freud to his first girlfriend, Felicity Hellaby has sold at Sotheby’s for £122,500 – over thirty times the pre-sale estimate. Written in an uneven hand, peppered with illustrations, and providing a fascinating insight into the artist’s early preoccupations, the letters attracted fierce bidding from a wide range of potential buyers. The letters were sold alongside three drawings, also given by Freud to Felicity Hellaby – all of which caused similar excitement in the saleroom today. The first in the group – a charming study of a bird – sold to a telephone bidder for £134,500 against an estimate of £12,000-£18,000.
The letters were offered alongside three drawings from the same period – all part of Felicity Hellaby’s possession since the 1940s. Discussing the letters, Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist for Contemporary Art said: ‘These charming letters reveal the energy, determination, and to some extent, the naivety, of Freud as a young man. In them we see not the established master that we have come to know, but a young teenager writing to his sweetheart and a young artist finding his way on the path to greatness. Written in the years while he was studying at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, they offer a compelling view of his artistic practice and although often playful and light-hearted, hint at a very real sense of ambition.’
Tom Eddison, of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department commented: ‘In these early drawings, Freud explores some of the themes that were to continue to influence his work throughout his life, including early indications of his preoccupation with people and animals. Most of these works have been with Felicity Hellaby for over seventy years and as such they represent a rare and exciting opportunity to gain a privileged insight into Freud’s early life and art.’ Felicity Hellaby and Lucian Freud Felicity Hellaby met the sixteen-year old Lucian Freud at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham, Essex where they were both students. The school, which was established by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, was forced to relocate to Hadleigh in Suffolk after a fire in 1940. Freud, a student there since 1939, was rumoured to have been responsible for starting the fire; it was a rumour he was happy to propagate, feeling that it only added to his growing reputation.
A year older than Freud, Felicity immediately caught his eye and as their relationship blossomed, they drew and painted one another. Felicity became the subject of one of Freud’s first full-scale portraits Girl on the Quay (1941) and another portrait, Felicity (est. £10-15,000), this time a more intimate work on paper, is included among the works to be sold. Their relationship, characterised in the letters by a youthful innocence, petered out after a few years but Felicity recalls Freud as “very, very funny, incredibly charming, and there was something about him that made me think, even then, that he was going to do extraordinary things” (Felicity quoted in: Geordie Grieg, Breakfast with Lucian, London 2013, p. 64). Written in the years following their time together at Dedham, the letters fondly addressed to his ‘Darling’ Felicity are full of boyish enthusiasm, painting a vivid portrait of Freud as a young man. Funny, beguiling and full of eccentricities, their subjects range from detailed descriptions of films he had seen to references to the necessary austerities of wartime England and reports on his latest purchases or haphazard living arrangements, “I have just been bitten by an enormous dog in the blackout…Its [sic] very dark here and most people have scars either on their noses or foreheads from walking into posts”. More strikingly, however, they reveal Freud’s single-minded approach to his work, uniquely documenting his development as an artist during this time. He writes in one, “My life is at a very crucial stage at the moment, one day I think I am beginning to make my work how I want it to be and then I feel so dissatisfied with it that I leave the house”.
The letters and drawings introduce some of the themes that were to engage Freud throughout his life. The fascination with the natural world that is evident in the letters is beautifully illustrated with his Untitled (Study of a Bird) (est. £12-18,000) and his interest in people’s faces is manifested in his detailed physical descriptions of characters from films or people who have sat for him. The letters also constantly refer to paintings he was working on at the time, offering glimpses of his working practices and his continuous experimentation. One letter provides a witty account of the challenges of working on what was later to become Chicken in a Bucket (1944), whilst another describes a jacket that appears in Boy in a Red and Blue Jacket (1945). The jacket, which is still in her family, was a present for Felicity, although Freud told her she could only have it once the painting was completed, “I got you a very old scarlet and dark blue coat with brass buttons…but I can not send it to you now be couse [sic] it is being painted in a picture”. Indeed many of the objects that Freud describes in the letters – the stuffed zebra head or the large Georgian mirror that is also charmingly illustrated – occur and reoccur in his earlier pictures.
The mirror was to become a permanent fixture in his studio, reappearing over twenty years later in the painting Small Interior (Self-Portrait). The letters and drawings will be offered in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Sale on 13th February.
A collection of Lucian Freud letters and a work from a later period in his career, goes under the hammer as part of the Evening sale on the On 13th February 2014