Our new catalogue accompanying the exhibition Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits is beautifully illustrated with examples of Freud’s plant paintings and etchings, with an introduction by Garden Museum curator Emma House and an essay by guest curator Giovanni Aloi, as well as interviews with Freud’s longtime studio assistant David Dawson, and daughter Annie Freud.
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To celebrate its release, we’re sharing an extract from the conversation between Giovanni Aloi and David Dawson:
David: Has Annie [Freud] told you about the zimmerlinde?
Giovanni: Yes, she did. I found the whole story very fascinating. Do you recall anything interesting about Lucian’s relationship with plants in his studio?
David: Yes, my impression is that Lucian painted plants when life tended to become tumultuous and his relationships with other people were strained. Or when he simply could not find a model to paint.
Giovanni: That’s interesting. It also appears clear, looking at Freud’s body of work, that he painted the same plant multiple times. Am I right? Are these the same plants in each work?
David: Yes, they are, and I still have some of them in my garden. I still keep them here—the zimmerlinde in Large Interior Paddington (1969) sits outside in its large pot. The aspidistra Lucian painted in Two Plants (1980) is out there too. He painted it again in a work with me and Eli laying on the bed (David and Eli, 2003). Aspidistra is called the “cast iron plant” for a reason. It is indestructible! There was also the imposing pelargonium behind the sofa in Large Interior (After Watteau) 1981. The plants tend to live their own lives in the studio and he let them do their thing. The way he dealt with plants was very much in line with how he led his life. He did not want to impose on them his aesthetic taste. He wanted things to follow their rules and nature. So plants were allowed to grow as they pleased, sometimes into a mess. But because of that, the plants were good for his paintings. They fit his idea of what painting should do. He wasn’t cutting them back.
The garden at Kensington Church Street, Notting Hill, also followed the same rules. He just let it grow wild. He never kept it, in the sense of proper gardening, because we wanted nature to do its thing and that’s how he wanted to paint them. The buddleia that became central to his late garden paintings just grew in the middle of the garden on its own—it was a weed. He let it grow right there. It then became this amazing flowering bush that he enjoyed painting. Nothing was contrived. He never thought of himself as a gardener.
Giovanni: His approach to plants is highly realistic and yet it does something very different from botanical illustration, which aimed to objectively capture the “perfect plant”, the specimen that represents the species, and neither does it fit in the philosophical idea of the flower still-life that emerged in the context of the Dutch Golden Age. His plants look raw and real, bare and vibrant in a way that neither botanical illustration nor still-life painting has ever accomplished. This is where the idea for the book came from. Do you remember how many plants were in the studio?
David: They would go in and out depending on the paintings. Sometimes he moved the zimmerlinde to the bedroom or the
bathroom if they weren’t being painted. We often reconfigured the studio as needed after a painting was finished—you know, a new beginning… Sometimes we moved the plants out because they were very large and took up quite a bit of space.
Giovanni: And how did he manage the growth of his plants in the paintings? He was a notoriously slow painter and plants can grow fast…
David: The growth of the plant was just part of it. He just painted along and captured the way the plant grew.