Amazing Illustrated Letters

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Lucian Freud to Sir Stephen Spender, 1939-1942Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Why just write when you could turn your letters into artworks? We celebrate the art of illustrated correspondence by Lucian Freud, Alexander Calder, YSL and more

Virginia Woolf once declared that letter writing was "the humane art, which owes its origins in the love of friends". Indeed, she was so devoted to championing correspondence that she penned an entire essay on the subject. In this day and age, the written letter seems to be a quaint antique – an archaic means of communication long rendered unnecessary by text and WhatsApp. But there’s no denying that an email can't muster the same emotional frisson of receiving a scribbled love letter slipped in the post or a postcard excitedly sent off from some far off destination.

Realist painter Walt Kuhn wrote to his wife that "one should never forget that the power of words is limited", a sentiment echoed through the years by creative correspondents throughout history who have decorated their notes with illustrations and images. Some used their drawings to convey information and tell stories, while others simply added detail to make their readers smile. So, inspired by the controversy surrounding Lucian Freud's letters going on sale in July, and because we love illustrated correspondence in general, we’ve picked out a few of our favourites.

Lucian Freud
A set of correspondence by painter Lucian Freud has set off a media frenzy in the past few weeks. Written to his friend, poet Stephen Spender, they are up for auction at Sotheby’s in July with an estimate of £42,000, a vast sum based both on their beauty and the scurrilous speculation they have incited. Written when the artist was a teenager, and Spender was in his 30s, the letters are flush with provocative insinuation – Freud signs himself off as “Lucionus Fruitata”, literally ‘juicy fruit’ – and hint strongly towards a homosexual affair between the two men.

But Freud’s letters aren’t just moneymakers and rumour fodder. They are insight into the early workings of Freud’s talent as a figurative artist. They also reflect the reality of youth – the passions, the obsessions, the books he was reading, the strange detail of everyday life in a school, the frivolous questions. "Do you realise," he asks Spender, "that if you shaved your nose every day you would soon grow a reasonable beard on it?"

Yves Saint Laurent
Yves Saint Laurent first arrived in Morocco in 1966, along with his partner Pierre Bergé. He quickly fell in love with Marrakech’s crowded bazaars and warmth; for him, it was a place where he could escape the hectic pace of Paris and entertain friends in the gardens of his villa, Jardin Majorelle. The designer wrote prolifically from the walled compound to business associates, editors, and friends. In a tender note to model and YSL muse Marina Schiano, he sent his love and hoped to see her in Paris. Saint Laurent also found visual inspiration from the Jardin, as seen by the sketches of veiled Muslim women and repeating Islamic patterns. He would go on to use these motifs, including the double snakes, in his fashion design.

Alexander Calder
Sometimes a letter becomes an extension of an artist’s style. It’s certainly the case with famed sculptor Alexander Calder. Credited with inventing the hanging mobile, Calder’s work is stark, bold and colourful. His letter to fellow artist Ben Shahn in 1949 turns a hand drawn map to Calder’s home in Connecticut into a paper version of one of the artist’s delicate kinetic pieces. Calder wrote from his home in Sache France, in response to Harvard Museum director John Coolidge with both written and drawn instructions on conserving one of his stabiles (a word he invented to describe his stationary sculptures).

Gladys Nilsson
Gladys Nilsson can be counted among the founding members of the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After meeting at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, the Imagists created work that was known for its surrealism, imagism and most importantly to them, complete uninvolvement in what was coming out of the New York art scene. In 1969, she sent a thank you note from the “friendly skies” to fellow artists Mimi Ross and Red Grooms.

Edward Ardizzone
Edward Ardizzone is best known for his children’s book series Little Tim – tales about a young boy’s adventures through the real and imagined world. Roald Dahl described him as the “greatest illustrator that has ever lived,” and he spread his visual largesse beyond his books, into his correspondence. Ardizzone was a keen letter writer to friends and family, and his notes always included an intricate, charming drawing that reflected his warm personality.

Alfred Joseph Frueh
When it comes to corresponding, sometimes it’s just easier to show something than try and explain it through words. Best known for his cartoons in the New Yorker, artist Alfred Joseph Frueh was an expert at the concept. Between 1912 and 1915, he wrote over 200 letters to his beloved fiancee, Giuliette Fanciulli. In this one, he turns a dispatch from Paris into a detailed model of a museum, telling his fiancee to get ready for “a gallery marathon”.

Lucian Freud's letters will be offered at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Day Auction on 2 July.