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Lucian Freud: What is a garden?

By Giovanni Aloi, Guest Curator Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits

What is a garden? This is the radical question posed by some of Lucian Freud’s most original paintings. Unlike Stanley Spencer, who routinely painted plants and gardens, or even Cedric Morris, who introduced him to plants, Freud wasn’t particularly interested in capturing the beauty of lush flower beds. Exception made for some very early works like Seaside Garden (1944) or the Henri Rousseau-reminiscent Botanical Garden painted soon thereafter, his interest veered from capturing manicured perfection or the full glory of summer blooms. In a sense, the very idea of a garden, as it is commonly conceived, represents the antithesis of his artistic philosophy. That’s not to say that Freud didn’t appreciate beauty of a classical kind. Like Annie Freud, poet and artist’s first daughter told me, “He didn’t like plants that were too overtly pretty or romantic. He had extreme tastes in gardens. It was either his own balcony, his back garden, or Drummond Castle Gardens”.

Through the many conversations I had with Freud’s family members and friends while researching for my book Lucian Freud Herbarium (2019), it transpired that in life as he did with painting, the artist’s approach was to refrain from controlling things too much. So when it came to gardening, Freud believed in letting plants do their thing—unimpeded by pruning and never smothered with too much care. Only then, plants could reveal their individual essence—a quality that the perfect, and often cloned, plants we buy in nurseries have not been allowed to show. Their unique personality might emerge later, in time, season after season if left unchecked, at least to a degree.

Wasteground, Paddington, 1970 (oil on canvas) © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images

Freud appreciated how some plants withstood hardship—a resilience that he felt had defined his life as a Jewish migrant to the UK who initially struggled to integrate. A great example of this is Waste ground Paddington, which the artist painted in 1970 soon after his father’s passing. The view from the window at 227 Gloucester Terrace was far from bucolic. Post-WWII Paddington provided cheap accommodation for immigrants, low-paid workers, and struggling artists. Two mattresses, buckets, rags, and bottles—the rubbish-strewn backyard trapped between the artist’s studio and the adjacent building quickly became a common sight across North London.

In this deeply melancholic painting, the garden gestures towards a kind of metropolitan unconscious hidden behind elegant facades of Georgian terraces. Cast as silent witnesses of human comings and goings, buddleias and other typically feral shrubs of London’s postwar landscape compete with the traces of anonymous lives in a truly honest portrayal of urban survival.

While not carrying any specific symbolic meaning according to the tradition of Dutch Golden Age still-lifes, buddleias became a very meaningful plant to Freud. The plant was imported from China during the second half of the 19th century as desirable ornamental, but they soon became a weed in London and southern parts of the UK. Gutters, rooftops, rail tracks, and dump sites—buddleias can make a little go a long way. Throughout the destruction and austerity that characterized the immediate post-war period, buddleias emerged from the ruins of bombed sites and filled disheveled back gardens.

One eventually grew by chance in Freud’s Notting Hill garden. As David Dawson, his assistant who also helped him plant the garden there recalls: “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, in 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”.

The messy exuberance of his Notting Hill garden is well documented in the series of paintings and etchings he worked on during the late 90s and beyond. Miles away from the classical repertoire of garden painting we are used to, Freud’s canvases don’t celebrate a gardener’s pride and neither do they allude to a spiritual communion with the natural world as Monet’s waterlilies did.

At times, Freud’s blooms look spent. The vegetation is intricate and impregnable. Freud’s garden is not a sanctuary, and neither is it a manifestation of our ability to bring harmony to nature. It is a special kind of place in which our desires and expectations vanish into the relentless wear and tear of everyday life, its bursts and long glides, its tumultuous trajectories, sudden losses, and unexpected resurgences. Never forced, nor corrected, repressed, clipped or smothered. Freud’s garden is a manifestation of the unbridled flow of life itself—not in the epic sense of romantic dramas or in the wild illusion of a remote and pure natural Eden, but in the often rough appearance of everyday forms of resistance that shape the branches of our plants just as much as they shape who we become, day after day, with them.