Lucian Freud drawing of him and his first wife, in private hands for nearly 70 years, to be sold at auction

The artist gave the work, an illustration for a book project that never came to pass, to Sonia Brownell, George Orwell's wife

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 6:00pm

A startlingly intense Lucian Freud drawing not seen in public for nearly 70 years and thought to be the only self-portrait to also feature his first wife Kitty Garman has emerged.

Freud drew the work, Flyda and Arvid, in 1947 and gifted it shortly after to his friend Sonia Brownell, best known for marrying the dying George Orwell in 1949.

After Brownell's death the drawing was passed down through her family and is now to be sold at Sotheby's.

It is a remarkable work, says specialist Simon Hucker of Sotheby's, not least because so little is known about it.

"This has not been seen since 1948. It's not in any of the books, it has just been in Sonia's family's collection - nobody has really known about it, nobody has managed to find it, it has just been off the radar."

He recalls going to the house and seeing it, hanging over the kitchen mantelpiece: "It was just embarrassing, I couldn't stop looking at it. When you do this job it was just one of those moments. It has everything you want from an early Freud drawing, it is just so beautiful."

The drawing was commissioned for a book, Flyda of the Seas: A Fairy Tale for Grown Ups, by the French author Marie Bonaparte. She was a disciple of Sigmund Freud and liked the idea of using his grandson to illustrate her book. However, the book project fell apart, leaving Freud with five drawings which he included in a small solo show in 1948 at the London gallery.It is a thing of beauty, says Hucker, and the only known work which has both Freud and his first wife Kitty Garman together.

"I showed it to a colleague today and it was just 'wow', the intensity of the stare and the beauty of the stippling. It has that hallucinogenic intensity you get with early Freud. They make you look at them … you can't take your eyes off them."

Freud was besotted with Kitty, the eldest daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. He painted her eight times between 1947 and 1951, in famous works such as Girl with a Kitten, in the Tate collection, and Po rtrait of Kitty, in the New Art Gallery collection in Walsall.

Brownell, who worked on the literary journal Horizon, was a regular drinking buddy of Freud and Francis Bacon.

Whether she was more than just a good friend to Freud is not known, although it would not be a surprise. Clearly Brownell, who died in 1980, cherished the drawing, never selling it - even though she could have done with the money later in her life.

Her reputation has taken something of a battering over the years from people who portray as a literary groupie who only married Orwell for his belated fame and royalties.

Hilary Spurling, a friend of Brownell's in the last decade of her life, published The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell in 2002 to help rescue her reputation.

"She was a great beauty and very wild and very generous," says Spurling. "Perhaps the most generous person I've met in every sense … her money such that she had, her kindness, her imagination.

"She had a very giddy life but I think that was the case for a lot of her generation who were zonked on the head by the war. When the war ended the survivors needed to turn their backs on all the slaughter and chaos and uncertainty and disintegration and just make the most of the moment and she was one of the people who did that.

"Sonia did a great deal of good for a great many people."

The drawing's value has been estimated at £600,000-£800,000 (HK$7.17-9.56 million) but that may be a conservative figure. Beach Scene with a Boat sold for £2.6 million in 2011, a record for a Freud drawing and well in excess of its £400,000-£600,000 estimate.

Flyda and Arvid will be sold on November 17.