Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits

The weather is perhaps a little inclement to be visiting gardens, so what better than to stay warm and look at art. The Garden Museum is holding an exhibition of Lucian Freud’s paintings of plants and gardens. You will undoubtedly know Freud for his portraits and vast landscapes of flesh, rather than matters horticultural, but this small exhibition, the first of its kind is brilliantly curated and well worth a visit. Freud was neither a plantsman nor a gardener, however, this exhibition shows how plants played an important part of his life, and how he captured his plant subjects in his inimitable style, similar at times to his treatment of humans.

Painter’s Garden, 2003-2004

Freud had a garden which his studio assistant David Dawson described: “he planted things and then let them grow, grow, and grow. He never touched anything because he wanted the garden to have a sense of real of naturalness.” ‘The thick and unruly growth offered him a sense of a lush and enclosed private space, gritty and understated.’ I can only imagine he would have welcomed the re-wilding movement.

But let’s begin at the beginning. Lucian was born in Berlin, the middle son of the Jewish architect Ernst L. Freud, who was himself the fourth child of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Lucian was named after his mother Lucie Brasch who had studied classical philology and art history.

Schlumbergera bridgesii

His mother kept several of his childhood paintings including this small picture of a pot plant, the familiar Christmas Cactus Schlumbergera which he drew in some detail when he was eight years old.

The family escaped the Nazi regime by moving to London in 1933 when Lucian was 10 years old. It must have been a confusedly uprooting experience and perhaps it was little wonder that he became a disruptive pupil.

At age seventeen in 1939, he was one of the earliest students to attend the recently-formed East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End in Suffolk. It was run by Cedric Morris and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines. The school prospectus described the school as “an oasis of decency for artists outside the system”. Lett-Haines taught theory, whilst Morris taught by encouragement and example. Morris was hugely interested in plants and Freud enjoyed his unconventional and experimental method of teaching. In 1941 he served as a merchant seaman in an Atlantic convoy journeying to Halifax, Nova Scotia, only to be invalided out of service in 1942. For a short while after that he attended The Goldsmiths’ College.

Gorse Sprig, 1944

The Garden Museum explains that ‘Freud saw beauty and truth in the seemingly unremarkable, the overlooked, and the imperfect. He painted weeds and the straggly potted plants that followed him from home to home throughout his life. He rarely idealised plants but instead concentrated on the architectural form and linearity, their texture and even their crumbling and decaying flesh.’ While Freud portrays in great detail the spiny nature of the Gorse Sprig, there is only a suggestion of the bright yellow flowers. The painting was included in his first solo exhibition at Alex Reid and Lefevre Gallery in 1944.

The Glass Tower

Freud received several commissions to illustrate books. In 1944 Freud was paid £40 (£2,270 in today’s money) to illustrate Nicholas Moore’s edition of poetry The Glass Tower, using a palm tree that he had purchased from the Loudon Road Nursery. He gave the book a striking cover. Other books included James Pope Hennessy’s Aspects of Provence and The Baths of Absalom. He gave the book by Claire Joyes Claude Monet: Life at Giverny to artist Sophie de Stempel who sat for him over a period of eight years. He loved the book and Monet’s garden.

Ill in Paris, 1948

This portrait Ill in Paris, 1948 is of Kitty Garman, painted just before they were married. Her face takes centre stage with the rose. The Garden Museum identifies this as ‘the starting point of later plant and human encounters in which the artist casts the plant as equal to the sitter or placed the plant in the foreground.’ Freud and Kitty were divorced in 1952.

Still Life with Zimmerlinde, c. 1950

Freud’s second wife was Caroline Blackwood who he married in 1952 and to whom he dedicated Still life with Zimmerlinde, c.1950. Zimmerlinde is the German name for Sparrmannia africana a houseplant also known as the Cape Linden Tree. Zimmerlinde refers to the origin of the plant native to South African Cape, as well as the similarity, in particular the shape of the leaf, to the Linden (Lime) Tree. All Zimmerlinde painted by Freud are said to be descendants of plants originally grown by Sigmund Freud in Vienna which he brought to London after fleeing the Nazi regime, and have been propagated and shared by members of the family ever since.

Cyclamen, 1964

With his wife Caroline, Freud bought a secluded, stone seventeenth-century manor house in Dorset, where in the dining room he began a mural of cyclamen. After his divorce in 1959 he made London his home where he remained until his death. He became fond of white fragrant flowers, although he rarely painted them. He would rise before dawn and visit Covent Garden Flower Market and buy huge quantities of flowers for the house. Cyclamen were his favourite and would brighten tables and mantlepieces in Autumn.

Small Fern, 1967

The exhibition explains ‘This highly unusual composition encapsulates Freud’s originality in approaching plants.’ Not a ‘showy’ plant adorned with flowers, is it the position, placed on the floor and seen from above, that draws our eye to it?

Wasteground Paddington, 1970

Many of us may have glimpsed this view from a window and probably not given it a second look. Freud looked at it in detail, bringing the feral buddleia and bushes to life amongst the rubbish-strewn backyard, and painting a sort of anti-garden. It is a ‘brutally honest portrayal of the hardship that urban life can entail for both humans and plants’.

Two Plants, 1977-1980

In 1977 Freud moved into a new studio in Holland Park. Two Plants, 1977-1980 portrays Helichrysum petiolare, the liquorice plant and Aspidistra elatior, the cast iron plant. This painting began as an opportunity to become accustomed to the lighting quality of his new studio. Over a three year span he wanted to capture the movement of the plants in how they died, regenerated, and produced new leaves. Two Plants could be described as a botanical painting but it is also a plant portrait portraying a period of time that neither photography nor film could capture. It is also painting that you would be forgiven for looking at for hours.

Landscape, c. 1993

This detailed etching of a piece of turf is a rare work. Freud’s focus is shifted away from the individuality of a single plant. The title of the work underlines the move from the singular to the plural and examines the texture and chaotic arrangement of the turf close up. He started work on this etching while on holiday in Tuscany, bringing the turf back with him to London in order to finish the work.

After Constable’s Elm, 2003

In the 1930s when Freud was at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing he had attempted to copy John Constable’s work but found it too difficult. In 2002 he was asked to curate an exhibition about Constable at the Grand Palais in Paris. His selection featured less known works of art like The Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (1821). He returned to the challenge and reinterpreting Constable’s work, dropping the word Study in order to emphasise the individuality of the plant from the technicality that a study might imply.

We return to cyclamen. In 1959, Freud was one of the first guest to be invited to Chatsworth House when the 11th Duke of Devonshire moved his family back into the vacated property. In one of the small private bathrooms he began another mural of cyclamen, flowers, buds and leaves. The estate greenhouse supplied pot after pot of flowers for him to paint. It was never finished and as he left behind his paints, it was thought that he might return to complete the bathroom.

Garden in Winter, 1997-1999

The Garden in Winter is surely an appropriate title to end this blog. The curator writes ‘Freud’s garden in Notting Hill had become a wilderness bursting with unbridled energy. It was overgrown and impenetrable and yet, at times during the day, brilliantly bathed in glistening sunshine. There was a glory in Freud’s vision of what most would consider a gardening nightmare. The artist’s search for truth wherever it might lurk became ever so poignant in the poetic roughness that makes the garden paintings and etchings from this period so memorable. With the buddleia at its centre, unkempt but enduring, Freud’s garden couldn’t be more at odds with traditional gardening and garden painting.’

During these cold months, while making your plans to visit gardens I encourage you to visit this exhibition on now at the Garden Museum until 5th March 2023 where you can also enjoy a delicious lunch.

*******JAN 2023*******

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