Artist Celia Paul loved Lucian Freud so passionately it made her ill

Maddened by love: Artist Celia Paul loved Lucian Freud so passionately that it made her ill. Only after a decade of his multiple affairs did she finally break free

  • The book details how Celia Paul fell in love with artist Lucian Freud at art school
  • She recalls her first sexual encounter with him when she was 18 and he was 56
  • The memoir reveals how she was in thrall to a powerful man three times her age

BOOK OF THE WEEK

Self-Portrait

by Celia Paul (Cape £20, 216 pp)

Just be glad you weren’t a young, innocent, impressionable female art student at the Slade in the 1970s.

It was all too likely that you’d be spotted by Lucian Freud, who was a visiting tutor and used to prowl the corridors and refectory.

He would make a flattering remark about your painting, then take you home in a taxi, rubbing his knuckles onto your neck and through your hair in the back of the cab. 

Later he would push you to the floor inside the door of his flat, so the coins fell out of your pocket, and that would be the beginning.

This was precisely what happened to the young art student Celia Paul. 

The memoir Self Portrait details how Celia Paul fell in love with artist Lucian Freud at art school

‘I felt that I had sinned, and that something had been irreparably lost,’ she writes, recalling her first sexual encounter with Freud in 1978, when she was 18 and he was 56.

‘I felt guilty and powerful. I felt that I had slipped into a limitless and dangerous world,’ she adds.

Her vocabulary might sound a bit overblown, but that was the effect Lucian seemed to have on women. Celia fell helplessly, dangerously in love — so deeply that, as she writes, it ‘was more like a sickness’.

Her hair became matted and her face white. She would wait indoors for three days for the telephone to ring if he said he was going to ring her (I’d forgotten that dismal aspect of lovesickness in the days before mobile phones).

Her mother cried when she saw her daughter in this state, in thrall to a powerful man more than three times her age.

Celia worshipped Freud’s body, his art and his mind. ‘I feel my bones melting in gladness,’ she writes, describing his touch.

The memoir reveals how she was in thrall to a powerful man three times her age (pictured in 2010)

Her craving for him really was a sickness: one that lasted ten years, and caused her moments of ecstasy followed by bouts of deep depression.

She fell into the trap so many others fell into: the belief that she was the chosen one, the only one.

Friends kept telling her gently that Lucian was famous for having lots of girlfriends at the same time, but she shunned the information.

£100m 

Value of art given by Lucian Freud to his bookie to pay off gambling debts 

She felt sick to the pit of her stomach when the well-meaning principal of the Slade, Lawrence Gowing, mentioned to her that another soon-to-be student was Lucian’s current ‘light o’ love’, and that his callous behaviour was ‘the stony cold mode of living that his art flourished on’.

Freud was adept at giving Celia just enough reassurance to keep her perpetually hopeful and in the lovesick state. That was one of his many arts.

‘I am filled with a feeling of power because of his recent flattery and attention,’ she wrote excitedly to her sister Kate, the day after he’d made her feel totally ‘undesirable’ and ‘exposed’ while painting her naked.

Celia worshipped Freud’s body, his art and his mind (Girl in Striped Nightshirt, 1985, by Freud)

In this fascinating memoir, you watch a woman being gradually eviscerated by love-torture.

Illustrated with Celia Paul’s paintings, it is partly a pitilessly honest re-living of that ten-year episode of her life, and partly a meditation on the eternal problem of how to juggle lovesickness and an artistic career. It’s also an enthralling examination of female self-esteem: how it can be slowly destroyed and, eventually, rescued.

Celia came from a warm, kind, sane Church of England family. Every time she retreated back to her family home to get away from the emotional violation going on in London, I sighed with relief — partly because, away from Freud, she could at last get on with her true vocation of painting.

Her clergyman father was a missionary turned bishop, who died young of a brain tumour. Celia had four sisters, one of whom, Jane, would go on to marry the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

From the paintings she did of them all, they look a gloomy lot, but I think this was a reflection of Celia’s own outlook on life, as well as the fact that they were all grieving.

From the paintings she did of them all, they look a gloomy lot, but I think this was a reflection of Celia’s own outlook on life, as well as the fact that they were all grieving

Wallowing in melancholy seemed to become a masochistic addiction for Celia. She allowed herself to become a long-term victim of Freud’s secretive, controlling ways, feeling ‘stupefied by my feeling of absolute worthlessness’.

Ringing in my ears while I read all this was Freud’s flippant remark to William Feaver (quoted in Feaver’s new biography of Freud) explaining why some of his children were exactly the same age as each other: ‘Don’t you realise I had a bicycle?’

Very witty — but this memoir reveals the emotional carnage that his behaviour caused.

Celia’s mother comes across as a saint and heroine, for two chief reasons. First, she was Celia’s main ‘sitter’, agreeing to sit for hours in the same position. This resulted in a host of sad, haunting portraits.

Secondly, when Celia gave birth to Lucian’s son Frank, just after Lucian’s 62nd birthday, her mother agreed to be Frank’s main carer, at her house in Cambridge, so that Celia could concentrate on her artistic career and be available to Lucian in London. Greater love hath no mother.

It’s a gratifying moment four years later when, at last, Celia decides to split up from Freud, accepting the truth that he’s deeply involved with another woman

Celia admits, ‘My mother was often exhausted, and sometimes resented the long hours she spent on her own with her grandson.’ I bet she did.

Freud visited Celia in hospital on the day of Frank’s birth, bringing her a bottle of champagne. The wrong present, one feels, and not what you need from your new baby’s father at that precise moment.

A vow of ’till death us do part’ would have been preferable, but that was never forthcoming.

It’s a gratifying moment four years later when, at last, Celia decides to split up from Freud, accepting the truth that he’s deeply involved with another woman.

It was ‘feeling more powerful and confident since becoming a mother’ that gave her the strength and courage to make that final break.

Lucian did, however, give Celia a top-floor flat near the British Museum, where she still lives and paints.

There’s a speck of light in the darkness of the lovesick years. Lucian often stipulated that Celia must not arrive at his flat before 1am, after he’d finished his day’s painting.

So she used to go alone to a cafe in Charlotte Street, before the late-night film, where she hoped to see someone she privately referred to as ‘the cafe man’ — a man with thick black hair who would look up dreamily while taking a drag on his cigarette.

Much later, after extracting herself from the tunnel of Lucian-lovesickness, she would marry that man. He turned out to be Steven Kupfer, a philosophy teacher. 

They’re happily married to this day — although they don’t live together, and he doesn’t even have a key to Celia’s flat.

Is Celia inflicting the same rules of enforced exclusion on her husband that Freud inflicted on her for so many years? One gets the sense that this is not the case — it’s just that, after years of emotional trauma, Celia treasures her solitude, and Kupfer respects that.

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