Letters from Lucian Freud to Stephen Spender Emerge for Auction at Sotheby’s London


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. Now, ten unpublished letters written by the teenage artist to his friend, the famous poet and critic Stephen Spender (1909-1995), have emerged from the Spender family collection after 70 years. Casting light on the formative years of one of the most influential British artists of the 20th-century, they will be offered at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction on 2nd July 2015 with a combined estimate of £28,000-42,000.

The letters will be sold alongside two works by Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) from the same collection including Head of Gerda Boehm (1961), one of the artist’s finest works on paper estimated at £250,000-350,000.

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 Freud Letters

These unseen 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.

Frank Auerbach and Stephen Spender

Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sales will also include two works by Frank Auerbach from the collection of the family of Stephen Spender: Head of Gerda Boehm (1961), one of the most psychologically arresting portraits in the artist’s oeuvre, and Sketch for Reclining Figure in the Studio (1966).

Introduced to the young Auerbach’s work by David Sylvester, Stephen Spender was amongst the artist’s earliest patrons, who, according to the artist was the first ‘stranger’ to buy his works (ie. not a friend or a family member.)

Not just a poet but also a critic, Spender outlined his admiration for the artist in 1982: “Since I am obsessive about rewriting my poems, it interests me that Frank Auerbach paints and repaints his pictures, draws and redraws his drawings, twenty five or thirty times, picture superimposed on picture on each canvas or sheet of much - torn, and sometimes glued- onto - with - another - sheet of paper” (Stephen Spender, ‘Frank Auerbach’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., Frank Auerbach: Recent Paintings and Drawings, 1982, n.p.).

Head of Gerda Boehm (1961)

Charcoal on paper, 76.2 by 55.9cm, est. £250,000-350,000

To be offered at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction, London, 1st July 2015

The artist’s first portrait of his cousin Gerda Boehm, this work stands as the flagstaff to the many portraits that followed over the next twenty years. An early work on paper, this is among the most visceral and ambitious of Auerbach’s entire corpus, revealing the artist’s tireless process of scraping back and building up layer upon layer of charcoal. Each night the drawing was left and then erased, scraped back and erased to a blur before Auerbach began again in earnest.

Frank Auerbach, Sketch for Reclining Figure in the Studio (1966) will be offered as part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction on 2nd July 2015 with an estimate of £50,000-70,000.

Auction Guide