Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life by Julia Frey Weidenfeld & Nicolson $300 JULIA Frey is the first biographer to have access to all painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's extant correspondence and this book has been 10 years in the making. It is worth the wait. Without the French Revolution, Lautrec and his family would probably have held high office in the Bourbon court. Even though the aristocracy was in decline by the time he was born in 1864, his family was still wealthy and his father held the hereditary title of Count. At first, Henry - the spelling his mother, Adele, preferred - appeared to be a healthy baby. It was only when he tried to walk that she realised something was wrong. As Lautrec grew older, his disabilities became more apparent. His bones did not develop properly and his sinuses became malformed. By adolescence, his lower lip protruded causing a drool, his nose ran constantly and his stunted, crippled legs were dragged along in a painful gait, made possible only with a walking stick. Lautrec bore the pain with a stoicism he was to show throughout his life. He was regularly confined to bed, often for weeks, as part of a quack ''cure'' or because of injury. To occupy himself he took up several hobbies. He also began to draw, mostly animals. Later, he and his mother moved to Paris and there Lautrec studied at Rene Princeteau's studio and then with Leon Bonnat, one of France's most famous portrait painters. He finally settled with Fernand Piestre Cormon, in Montmartre. One of his fellow students was Van Gogh. All three of Henry's mentors were steeped in the traditional school of painting, a school that the Impressionists, along with other dissident movements, challenged. Initially, he towed the line, but as he became more skilled and self-assured, he changed direction. As Julia Frey writes: ''He was moving on from the solid base of training he had received from Bonnat and Cormon - accurate perspective, realistic volumes, copies of old masters and living models . . . he experimented with subject, style and technique, trying the methods his friends were trying and adopting them permanently only when they fulfilled his own stylistic needs.'' But it was the bohemian chaos of Montmartre, that was to become his artistic home and his greatest source of inspiration. In the late 1870s, artists, poets and musicians, moved to Montmartre from the Latin Quarter because rents were cheaper. With them came taverns, cabaret clubs and brothels, which Henry and his friends frequented. On October 5, 1889, the Moulin Rouge opened. ''Here, at last, Henry was in his element,'' Frey notes. ''The bawdy goings-on, the flagrant artificiality and ill-disguised lasciviousness, the available spectator sports both on and off-stage, the heady odour of tobacco rice powder, stimulated and amused him.'' Not content with just oil paintings, he started experimenting with lithographic prints and accepted commissions for posters. In 1891, he created Moulin Rouge - La Goulue, using the popular dancer La Goulue, a favourite subject. It became one of his most famous works. Although magazines reproduced his prints, some art galleries hung his paintings and his posters were daubed on walls all over Paris, money was tight. He was constantly demanding substantial sums from his mother who grudgingly paid up. Lautrec treated his own disabilities with self-deprecatory humour. ''I will always be a thoroughbred hitched up to a rubbish cart,'' he said of himself. But he was aware that people always saw him as different and this made him feel an outsider. Prostitutes, however, accepted him as he was and paintings and lithographs of brothel life, such as Medical Inspection, showing prostitutes queuing up for their weekly VD check, La Toilette and Au Salon de la Rues de Moulins, are among his greatest works. Although Lautrec must have read novelists such as Emile Zola, who highlighted social injustice, he declined to pass judgement. Even in Monsieur, Madame and the Dog where a middle-class couple sit in a bordello checking their ''investment'', he was merely observing. To Frey, his aim in painting was to seek ''psychological insight into his characters''. With the lithographs, however, he was experimenting in abstract art. Although he was not accepted by the establishment, represented by the ultra-conservative Paris Salon des Artiste Francais, Henry became recognised as a major artist. But by 1896, he was concentrating increasingly on lithographs. He was also drinking heavily, his condition exacerbated by tertiary syphilis. In 1899, unable to control his drinking, his mother had him consigned to a mental asylum. He was soon released and resumed his suicidal drinking. He suffered two strokes and on September 9, 1901, he died, aged 36. Thirteen years after his death a newspaper article recounted the amazing story of Lautrec's move to a new studio a few years before his death. In leaving, he abandoned about 90 canvases and told the landlady she could do what she wanted with them. The landlady exchanged some for drinks in bars while, reluctantly, the new occupant of the apartment took 30 and gave them to his maid. What masterpieces, now lost forever, were stuffed between cracks in the wall to keep out the wind and used to wash floors? The book offers 50 colour plates of his paintings and prints which have survived. Frey explains each one lucidly, enhancing the reader's knowledge of how Lautrec's style developed over the years. Frey allows Lautrec's story to be told by the friends and fellow artists who knew him well and through the letters he wrote, mostly to his mother. She is never intrusive and avoids becoming maudlin, an easy trap to fall into given Lautrec's tragic life.