The sight of just one painting by Celia Paul is enough to stamp her artistic personality in the viewer’s mind. In the past, occasional encounters with her work revealed her liking for single figures in a darkish, indeterminate setting. A deep melancholy prevails. She herself admits that these intensely personal and private paintings seem to have a “keep out” notice in front of them. But then, at All Too Human, an exhibition at Tate Britain of postwar figurative art, a large oil, Family Group (1984-86), stopped many visitors in their tracks. It showed her four sisters crowded around her mother, all squeezed on to a wrought iron bed, as if afloat on a raft, painted after the death of her father. Paul wanted to show them “without a navigator and longing for guidance”, also “huddling together for warmth and protection”. It is only the limited space of the bed that causes the huddling and there is no eye contact between the women. Yet a deep, connective empathy is conveyed.
Paul has now turned 60. The publication of this, her first book, is of great significance. In her youth she kept a diary. When she began writing poems, their need for economical expression proved a bridge towards the wordless language of paint, as painting gradually took over. But having recently returned to writing again, she has found a new confidence, in words, in herself and in her painting. Much of the narrative in this book circles around her turbulent relationship with Lucian Freud. After his death, she noticed mentions of herself in his obituaries, as well as articles and books, and became determined to tell her own story. No longer wanting to remain simply a part of Freud’s story, she wanted to make him part of her story, a narrative about her life as a painter.
The past reopened as she wrote about it, and her early diaries helped connect her with her younger self. “Lucian has resurfaced in my mind and in my dreams,” she writes. It is interesting that their relationship began in 1978, after she had seen an exhibition of his work at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, where she had been moved by the urgency, conveyed through raw, thick paint, in his portraits of his elderly mother. They met at the Slade School of Art – she, an 18-year-old student and he, aged 56, a one-day-a-week visiting tutor. He appeared in expensive shoes, a beautifully tailored suit, with a white silk scarf round his neck. His dramatic entrance was enhanced by his posing, a sucking-in of cheeks and his staring, pale lizard-green irises. Soon after, however, he seemed like an actor who had forgotten his lines and did not know what to do with himself. She helped him by showing him a drawing of her mother lying face down on a bed, which focused on the backs of her knees. She, too, was beginning to do interesting things in drawings and paintings when it came to flesh.
Before the end of that afternoon Freud was showing her a painting in progress in his Holland Park flat. She interrupted his kissing with an excuse about a need to make arrangements with a model. The next week, on the day of his visit to the Slade, now a little frightened of him, she stayed away. He chased her up with a phone call that evening and they arranged to meet in Regent’s Park the following day. She thought, while they were lying on the grass together, that he seemed “lonely and needy and strange”.
This side of Freud remains largely hidden in William Feaver’s recent The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth. Feaver’s long-term association with Freud, and frequent conversations with him, either on the phone or in person, mean that Freud’s persona peeps through and helps direct almost every page. Paul’s memoir therefore seems fresh, and comes as a surprise. Her views, both intimate and yet more distant and independent, enable her to recall hidden aspects of Freud’s life, his vulnerability, vanity, tenderness and undoubted need of her, as well as his brutality towards women. He suggests, for instance, that she should act like Gwen John, who gave up her own work while having an affair with Rodin. Once the affair between them is established, Paul sometimes waits days on end alone in a room in Ladbroke Grove, fearful of going out in case she might miss Freud’s call, jealous of the person he is seeing and yet fearful of approaching him. Yet at one point he tells her that she was the one to whom he felt “really married”.
She officially split from him 10 years after they first met, but they remained connected until his death in 2011 through their son, Frank, who was born in 1984 and named after Frank Auerbach. The other unbreakable connection between them was their commitment to painting. The last picture Freud painted of Paul offers a reversal of the more usual gender role in art. In Painter and Model, it is she who is shown actively involved in the business of painting, while her friend Angus Moore poses as a reclining male nude.
There is a revealing throwback to her early childhood in India, where her father worked in a seminary. After the birth of her younger sister, which displaced her in her mother’s affections, she refused to eat, became seriously ill and was diagnosed with leukaemia. She caused the whole family to relocate back to England, where she recovered. Her parents thought her recovery miraculous and had been achieved, they said, through constant prayer. Paul thought otherwise: “I knew I had brought the illness on myself to get my mother’s attention. I succeeded. My mother gave me devotion for the rest of her life.”
Her father eventually became bishop of Bradford but suddenly fell ill with a brain tumour and died. He owned no possessions except books and left his wife no money. The church put out a petition and raised enough money for a small house, which enabled her to move to Cambridge, to be near Jane, one of her five daughters, and her son-in-law, Rowan Williams, then dean of Clare College, Cambridge. It is Paul’s mother who, after the first three months of his life, brings Frank up more or less alone, with Paul making regular visits. She continued to live and work in the two main rooms of a London flat that Freud had bought for her, and which looks on to the front facade of the British Museum. It contains very little furniture other than the wrought iron bed, and, as her son has written, “is devoid of the kind of adornments that others might find necessary for a sense of self-assurance”. Even her husband, the philosopher Steven Kupfer, who lives separately from her, in Kentish Town, does not have a key.
Not surprisingly it is Paul’s mother who, with Freud, lingers in the reader’s mind. The memoir describes her mother in old age maintaining the routine that brings her to London twice a week from Cambridge to pose for her daughter. Having caught an early train, she arrives up the 80 steps to the flat, dishevelled, breathless, near to collapse. There is a necessary period of recovery. But once installed in her sitting position in the studio, we are told that “she entered into the silence with her soul”, her face assuming a rapt expression. Paul adds: “My painting was raised to a higher level, too, because of her elevated state. The air was charged with prayer. She was always ecstatic if she felt she had sat well.”
Afterwards there is a gathering of bags in preparation for her departure and her careful descent, gripping the banisters nervously. “My heart ached as I said goodbye and watched her rounded back as she made her way slowly down the stairs … I would look out of the window and watch her as she walked from my flat, a hesitant but determined little figure among all the crowds of tourists outside the British Museum. I could still see as she walked down Great Russell Street, until she reached the street that led into Russell Square, and then I would lose sight of her.”
• Celia Paul is at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1, until 20 December. Self-Portrait is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.