Lucian Freud's Rite of Passage
In 1941 the 18-year-old Lucian Freud joined the Merchant Navy and crossed the Atlantic on SS Baltrover. The full story of his voyage is told here for the first time by Sandra Boselli, who argues that it helps to explain two of Freud’s most significant early paintings.
Sandra Boselli, Friday, 18th December 2009
Lucian Freud claims that ‘my work is entirely about myself and my surroundings.’ Conversely, he admits to being secretive by nature to the extent that ‘One thing I wouldn’t tell anyone is why I did something or what I did’.1 Such statements whet one’s curiosity. If Freud’s art is autobiographical but he is reluctant to explain his motivations, the challenge to discover the stories behind his works is irresistible.
Among the events of his early life that have attracted little research is the transatlantic voyage he made in 1941. In artistic terms, this was a watershed period for Freud, exemplified by two paintings, Man Wheeling a Picture (Fig. 2) and Evacuee Boy, both painted in 1942. They form a total contrast in style. The former reveals the obsession for detail characteristic of so many of Freud’s early works, whereas the latter, with its boldly laid colours, is a precursor of his mature work. What appears to bind these two pictures is what Freud has described as his ‘adventure’ on board the Merchant Navy vessel SS Baltrover (Fig. 1).
Over the years, the artist has given a variety of explanations as to how he came to be travelling on the Baltrover early in the war, how long the journey lasted and his motives for making it. In 1974, he told John Russell that he was ‘smuggled aboard a merchant ship and spent five months at sea’.3 However, in 1988 he declared that ‘he managed, through a friend’s father, to get a pass into the Liverpool docks and then to obtain a Merchant Navy id card by pretending to have lost one when a boat had been torpedoed’.4 And in 2002, on the occasion of his retrospective at the Tate, it was recorded that ‘he succeeded in being signed on as an Ordinary Seaman on the SS Baltrover’.5 Most recently, in the book Lucian Freud on Paper, published in 2009, Freud has stated that he travelled on ‘an old Baltic tramp ship’ and this time the voyage lasted three months.6 Where lies the truth?
In 1941, Freud – who had been living in Britain since 1933 – was only 18. In 1939, with the help of a family friend, Princess Marie Bonaparte, a disciple of Lucian’s grandfather Sigmund Freud and closely connected to the British royal family, his parents were able to obtain British citizenship. Since Lucian was still a minor (he would not be 21 until December 1943) he was included. This was lucky for him. If he had retained German citizenship, he would have been deemed a ‘friendly enemy alien’ by the British and by June 1940 could have been interned and then shipped out to Canada or Australia like many of his young fellow Jews who had not adopted – or had been unable to obtain – British nationality.
However, Freud could not escape the consequences of war. Once he turned 18 in 1941, he was liable for call-up at any time. He became intent on travelling abroad, which entailed a plan that he did not divulge even to his closest friends. To attain his objective he travelled to Liverpool with – as suggested by Nicholas Penny in 1988 – a pass to enter the docks. Thanks to the dockland grapevine, he was able to board the SS Baltrover, a ship that had been reallocated to the ‘Liner Division’ for voyages to the usa or Canada.7 Apparently, however, Freud was unable to secure a berth.8 The only way for his plan to work was for him to travel not as a passenger but by signing on as an Ordinary Seaman with the Merchant Navy.
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