Elizabeth II: The Sovereign and the Bohemian
In the early 1930s, a nine-year-old German boy named Lucian was walking around his home city of Berlin with his governess when he saw Adolf Hitler surrounded by bodyguards. Lucian took out his camera and photographed the Nazi leader, later recalling how small Hitler seemed.
Seventy years later—in May 2000—Lucian Freud stood at an easel in a studio at St. James’s Palace about to begin what would become one of the most controversial and unlikely pairings of an artist and subject in the history of the British royal family. In front of him sat Queen Elizabeth II.
Two men had a hand in leading up to this moment. One was Hitler. The Freud family was Jewish, and it was after one of Lucian’s close relatives was killed by Nazis outside a café in Berlin that Lucian’s parents became worried about their future in Germany and moved the family to England. Whilst Lucian had a difficult upbringing at times in England, often fighting with other boys as he struggled to learn English, it was almost certainly a decision that saved his life.
The other man responsible for Lucian painting a portrait of Elizabeth was the artist’s grandfather—Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. Lucian was very close to his grandfather, who also immigrated to England in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution.
With a world war looming, civil service bureaucracy held up the Freud family’s application for naturalisation in the United Kingdom. However, Sigmund Freud persuaded a friend to use his influence with the Duke of Kent, younger brother of King George VI. The duke, in turn, ensured the paperwork was resolved quickly. When war broke out a few days later, the Freud family avoided the fate of many other newly arrived Germans who were sent as enemy aliens to internment camps in Britain.
Years later, Lucian Freud regarded his offer to paint the queen for no fee as a way of repaying the royal family for the Duke of Kent’s intervention. This was a considerable gift as Freud’s works fetched high prices; one painting, Benefits Supervisor Resting, sold at Christie’s New York for over $56 million after the artist’s death.
By the time Freud met Elizabeth for her first sitting, he had become legendary for not just his artistry, but also the extraordinary way he lived his life. He was a true bohemian, living almost entirely by his own set of rules in ways that very few artists have been able to do. He mixed with the aristocracy and hardened criminals. As a young man, he dated Greta Garbo, got drunk with Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon, and became famous despite not giving a press interview for four decades. He regularly got into fistfights, even in his eighties. On many occasions the man regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living artist would turn up at friends’ houses in the middle of the night to borrow money after gangsters (the Kray twins) had threatened to cut out his tongue or cut off his hand. His addiction to gambling and the huge debts he owed to bookmakers saw him banned from British racecourses for many years. His sex life was equally chaotic, and most accounts suggest he fathered at least fourteen children by several different women, although the figure could be nearer forty.
From the start, the combination of Freud and the queen was likely to be an unsatisfactory one. By the time she sat for him, Elizabeth had already had her portrait painted by over one hundred other artists. Many were good paintings, but compared with the advances in royal portraiture achieved in the past by figures such as Hans Holbein or Anthony Van Dyck, 20th-century representations of Elizabeth were generally uninspired.
Freud’s paintings, on the other hand, were provocative and unflinching warts-and-all portraits of the human form, regarded by many as ugly and others as groundbreaking. The artist, who found worldwide attention for works such as Naked Man with Rat (1977), seemed to be the last person the queen would choose to paint her.
To pose for Freud was enormously demanding. Many of his paintings required the subject to sit or lie in uncomfortable positions on multiple occasions that often added up in aggregate to over 2,000 hours in the studio. Freud was an intense personality. His penetrating stare and habit of working during the night often exhausted his models.
This was one reason why he often asked unknown people to sit for him. Sons of bookmakers, young women he met drinking in Soho, acquaintances: Often they were so flattered to be asked, they would put up with the temper tantrums, long sessions and sometimes the demoralising climax when Freud destroyed the picture because he was not happy with the result. Freud liked to totally control the process of creating a picture, but the queen was not someone who was used to being controlled.
One issue was time. With over three hundred public engagements a year, Elizabeth was restricted in how often she could sit for Freud. The artist also had to rein in some of his instincts. Clearly the queen could not be asked to appear naked or lie at an odd angle on the floorboards.
Freud described the resulting process as being similar to mounting a polar exhibition, and sought to stamp his authority on the proceedings as far as he was able. He insisted on the sessions taking place in a studio in St. James’s Palace, rather than the Yellow Drawing Room in Buckingham Palace where other artists customarily had worked with the queen in the past.
He also managed to persuade the queen to sit for fifteen separate sessions—far fewer than he was used to, but an astonishing testament to their stamina. Elizabeth was then aged seventy-three, Freud seventy-seven.
The diamond-and-pearl-encrusted diadem worn by the queen for the portrait—the George IV State Diadem, which she wore en route to her coronation on June 2, 1953—was hugely valuable, and initially security guards stood inside the studio. Freud became frustrated with their presence and secured another minor victory when the queen sent the guards outside.
The painting itself was tiny—just nine and a half by six inches—a reflection of the limited time Freud had with the queen. Art historian Simon Abrahams has also pointed out the striking comparison between the painting of the queen and Freud’s self-portraits. Freud himself admitted, “My work is purely autobiographical … It is about myself and my surroundings. It is an attempt at a record.” His painting of Elizabeth can be seen as really a portrayal of his alter ego, projecting himself onto the subject.
Whilst they were of a similar age, Freud and Elizabeth were very different people. Freud was an intensely private man, who refused to conform to social norms, often regardless of the hurt and damage he might cause. By contrast, Elizabeth had lived her whole life in the public eye, unable to make mistakes or disregard rigid royal protocols. Freud was Jewish; Elizabeth is the supreme head of the Church of England.
However, the two had more in common than might be generally known. Freud grew up with a deep love of horses and horse racing. At the progressive school he attended he even slept at night beside horses in a stable. The queen has a similar passion for horses and has bred many champion racers. During those fifteen sessions in St. James’s Palace, they had at least one shared interest to talk about. Freud’s friend Clarissa Eden later said, “Lucian had a whale of a time … They talked about racing and horses. She kept on saying, ‘We must stop talking. We must get on with this portrait.’”
Lucian’s ties with the royal family went back many years before his portrait of Elizabeth. In the late-1940s and 1950s, he came into the orbit of Princess Margaret, Elizabeth’s glamorous younger sister, whose “set” was one of the most exclusive of the era.
Freud would later recall living a decadent life in the 1950s in Soho, where his house regularly attracted shady acquaintances trying to avoid the police. On one occasion, he came under considerable pressure from the police after he acted as an alibi for a local car dealer suspected of murder. It was only after the newspapers reported that he had attended a social event with the queen and Princess Margaret that the police backed off, anxious about upsetting people in high places.
Another encounter between Freud and the royal family was less successful when Prince Charles, the queen’s eldest son and a keen amateur watercolourist, suggested he and Freud swap paintings. Given that Freud’s pictures sold for several million pounds apiece, he refused.
When Freud unveiled his portrait of Elizabeth, the reaction was polarised. The popular press was generally horrified at how the queen appeared, the Sun suggesting, “Freud should be locked in the Tower for this,” and calling it a “travesty.” The Telegraph described it as “extremely unflattering,” whist the editor of the British Art Journal said, “It makes her look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke.”
Other critics were more appreciative, calling it “thought-provoking and psychologically penetrating” and “the best royal portrait of any royal anywhere for at least 150 years.”
The queen followed royal protocol and passed no public judgement on the portrait, which is now part of the Royal Collection. However, since she was fully familiar with Freud’s work, there seems little doubt that she was entirely unsurprised at the bluntness and honesty of the portrait, or the general reaction to it. It is a credit to the queen that she was willing to take the risk, particularly when most monarchs—including many of her ancestors, as we have seen—seek only obviously flattering representations that reflect their position and power.
Over time, it seems likely that this collaboration between artist and sovereign will be regarded as one of the greatest portraits of a British monarch and certainly one of the bravest on the part of both Freud and Elizabeth herself.
(The above appears as Chapter 16 in Lust, Lies and Monarchy: The Secrets Behind Britain’s Royal Portraits, written by Stephen Millar and published by Museyon in 2020.)