‘I have often thought’, wrote Dr Johnson, ‘that there has rarely passed a Life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.’ Against that we can set the Devil’s advice in C S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: make sure those you wish to corrupt read plenty of biography – it will lessen their belief in people’s worth. As a test case we have the second volume of William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud. His first volume was disturbing if pleasurable, dominated by Freud’s voice: he and Feaver spoke nightly on the phone, with Feaver taking notes and maybe taping some conversations. Other testimonies – those of Frank Auerbach and Gabriele Annan – were steadying and gave context, but mostly Freud was allowed free rein to provide his own account of his life, settling scores along the way. Feaver felt limited need to use documents, letters and the like, ‘to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth’. Although not as playful as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, from which this dismissal of conventional biography comes, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth – 1922–1968 was absorbing in all its darkness and light, a dazzling tour de force.
The second volume, subtitled ‘Fame – 1968-2011’, is different but no less interesting. Encountering the artist first in 1973, when commissioned to write an article about him for the Sunday Times Magazine in advance of the artist’s Hayward Gallery retrospective of 1974, Feaver becomes part of the narrative, more obviously