Photograph of Freud working late into the night by Love Lucian editor David Dawson. David Dawson is seen in the photo, which was taken by Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert in London.

The artist Lucian Freud is revealed in all his boisterous, irreverent, and humorous grandeur in his writings

The editors of this handsome and captivating volume, David Dawson, who worked as Freud’s personal assistant for a number of years, and Martin Gayford, a close friend of the artist, insist right away that what they have created is not a memoir or a biography but rather a collection of letters in their succinct introduction. This is false and does a disservice to both guys. Love Lucian is exceptional—like it’s a biographical tapestry wrapped around a collection of facsimile-reproduced letters that are at once sparse, careless, humorous, and often oddly but exquisitely illustrated—works of visual art.

In contrast to the two artists the editors cite, Van Gogh and Michelangelo, Freud did not compose letters. He lacked the self-absorbed arrogance of the latter and the desire of the former. He was serious about his job but not about himself. Which is not to argue that he was oblivious to or modest about his own artistic value. Dawson and Gayford opine, and unquestionably they are correct, that the letters’ flippancy and boisterous humor, like the man who wrote them’s busy private and public activities, were a release and a relaxation from the rigors of a life devoted to the creation of art.

The editors mention at the book’s conclusion that Freud’s reputation “had two peaks, with a very long trough in between” and that the book ends when the artist is 32 years old. When he was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in mid-1954, he was “a celebrated artist and a celebrity.” However, after that, his reputation fell dramatically, and it did not recover until the 1970s, when his new, rawer style caught the attention of both critics and the general public.

This work has the effect of reminding us how drastic the transition was between the earlier and later times. Freud created pieces when he was a young man that may have been painted during the Dutch Golden Age. Girl with Roses, a monumental picture of Freud’s wife Kitty from 1948, is a masterwork with exquisite detail. The editors note that Kenneth Clark, one of the artist’s clients at the time, asked for a close-up shot of the eyes in the image, in which “the reflections of the studio’s sash windows and, astonishingly, even the silhouette of the artist were visible.” This era produced a lot of elaborate paintings. Consider the weird trompe l’oeil effects created in the representation of the upholstery of the couch where the figure is reclining in another image of Kitty, Girl With a White Dog, 1950-1. The eyes of the lady and dog are very well depicted in this image. The models’ slightly frantic gazes in these and several other pictures are possibly a consequence of the very lengthy sittings that the painter insisted upon and received.

The editors point out that his contact with his friend and creative adversary, Francis Bacon, is conspicuously absent from this collection of letters. At some point at the beginning of the 1950s, the two young men crossed paths, and immediately a bond—often an uncomfortable one—was forged between them. Bacon’s example and influence may have played a role in inspiring Freud to go from his early, mesmerizingly precise manner to the considerably looser method of the later time.

Due to this development, Freud lost a number of important followers, Clark being one of them. However, there will undoubtedly be those who lament, if not outright condemn, the change from the musclebound tortuosities of the latter work to the limpid precision of the earlier. Too often, the people in many of his most acclaimed paintings from the 1970s and forward seem to be composed of something flexible rather than flesh, like plasticine or gutta percha.

“Freud must have been a wonderfully amusing if somewhat dangerous companion”

This book will disappoint readers looking for deep aesthetic insights or lengthy ruminations like those found, for example, in Van Gogh’s letters. Freud, at least in his early years, did not devote much time to artistic reflection or theoretical speculations, if his correspondence is to be believed. He writes to his friends and loves in a boisterous, irreverent, sometimes mocking, and usually always humorous manner. He must have been a very entertaining, if little risky, friend. He was a compulsive womanizer who treated his lovers horribly, or so it would appear given the level of devotion displayed by his two marriages and numerous more.

Freud mostly learned on his own. According to the editors, the institution he started attending in 1939 was “in some ways more like an artist’s colony than a conventional educational establishment,” where the pupils were primarily left to their own devices and only received instruction through the examples of more experienced artists. Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, a homosexual couple, ran it, and the artist described it as having “a very odd atmosphere, really odd.” Given the milieu that Freud himself created, which is clearly testified to by the letters collected in this wonderfully constructed anthology, we may trust him with certainty. Please continue.

Love Lucian: The Letters of Lucian Freud 1939-1954 edited by David Dawson and Martin Gayford is published by Thames & Hudson (£65). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.