‘You’re living and your relationships grow and mature or decay’
A thrilling rediscovery never before seen in public, Still Life with Zimmerlinde is an intimate jewel of a painting by Lucian Freud, dedicated to the artist’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood. It is a study – painted around 1950, and replete with the crisp, clear-eyed detail of Freud’s early style – of a zimmerlinde. Literally ‘room linden’ in German, the plant is more commonly known in English as a house lime. One heart-shaped leaf dominates the composition, its serrated outline faithfully traced and its bright, backlit green surface baring every vein. Its tip and the stem behind it are fringed with a halo of minute hairs. A second leaf swoops off-picture to the right. The lime’s leaves and stems hover before a large flowerpot, which holds a bed of dark soil and the pale shell of a whelk. The play of daylight across the granular earth and the pot’s smooth terracotta lip is observed with exquisite attention; a sharp-edged hole sunders the whelk shell, revealing an interior of porcelain translucency. To the lower left, the image is cut short by a swathe of still-raw canvas in which Freud has written, in his distinctive rounded hand, ‘For Caroline / with all my love / Lucian’.
Freud met Lady Caroline Blackwood, a beautiful, wild and intensely charismatic heiress to the Guinness fortune, at a party thrown by Lady Rothermere in 1949. Although he was still married to his first wife, Kitty Garman, and would remain so until 1953, he and Caroline soon became seriously involved. In 1952 they absconded to Paris, where Freud immortalised her in the iconic painting Girl in Bed. In 1953 they returned to London, Freud divorced Kitty, and he and Caroline were married. For the next few years, the pair were a chaotic fixture of Soho’s bohemian artistic circles. Freud’s habitual infidelity eventually proved too much, and the turbulent, striking couple split in 1958. Among Freud’s many relationships, his time with Caroline left perhaps the greatest mark on his life. Some fifty years later, his recollection of first meeting her remained electric. ‘I remember she wore sort of dirty clothes, the wrong way round … She was just exciting in every way and was someone who had taken absolutely no trouble with herself, looking like she hadn’t had a wash. But then someone actually said that she hadn’t. I went up to her and I danced and danced and I danced and danced’ (L. Freud, quoted in G. Greig, Breakfast with Lucian, London 2013, pp. 105-6).
‘I’ve got a strong autobiographical bias’, Freud once told William Feaver. ‘My work is entirely about myself and my surroundings’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 18). Beyond its link to Caroline, Still Life with Zimmerlinde resonates with other distinct aspects of Freud’s life and work. Even the inscription tells part of the story – Freud had left Germany suddenly for England in 1933 at the age of eleven, and his childlike, awkward lettering was one of the results. He was forced to write with his right hand, but still painted with his natural left. ‘When I came to England first’, he recalled, ‘I could only do German Gothic handwriting; I was terribly good at it before coming’ (L. Freud, quoted in W. Feaver, Lucian Freud, New York 2007, p. 11). The motif of the house lime can also be traced across the years. The plant itself may have first come as a cutting from Vienna, where Freud remembered a large specimen growing in his grandfather Sigmund Freud’s apartment at Berggasse 19; his father certainly brought a zimmerlinde over to England when the family left Berlin, and to this day there is one still growing in Freud’s Kensington Church Street home. Among the artist’s numerous early botanical studies is an oil on panel, Small Zimmerlinde, from 1947; shortly afterwards, he caught Kitty Garman behind a zimmerlinde branch in the arresting 1948 pastel Girl with Leaves (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The fondness for plants that runs throughout Freud’s work was perhaps seeded by Cedric Morris, the painter and horticulturist who taught him at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in the early 1940s.
In later, larger paintings by Freud, foliage often offsets sitter to vivid effect – perhaps most unforgettably in the dramatic, adversarial presence of the potted yucca in Interior at Paddington (1951, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), but also in the house lime whose pellucid leaves, viewed from above, spread over Freud’s daughter Isobel in Large Interior, Paddington (1968-69, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid). That zimmerlinde – now tall and rangy, but growing from the same earthenware pot – is likely the same one that Freud painted in the present work around fifteen years before. Another of his daughters, the author Esther Freud, seems to have drawn on the plant for the final scene of her sixth novel Love Falls, whose main character’s German-Jewish father, Lambert, is based on Lucian. ‘[T]hrough the half-open door of his bedroom she saw the giant pot of his one plant. Its familiar leaves, pale-green and heart-shaped, stretching towards the light. Lara moved instinctively towards it. “I’ve always wondered, what is that plant?” “Oh.” Lambert pushed the door wider to reveal its branches, almost spanning the width of one wall. “It’s a Zimmerlinde. My little sister sent the seed to me in a letter. It’s the only thing I’ve ever tried to grow.” They stood and looked at the Zimmerlinde together. “Well, obviously, that’s not the original one.” His voice was low. “But I take cuttings, every decade or so”’ (E. Freud, Love Falls, London 2007, p. 288). Much as his portraits chart the aging of family, friends and lovers over the decades, Freud’s own zimmerlinde registers the passage of time and growth, standing as a poignant continuity in a life of shifting relationships and evolving technique. Where Large Interior, Paddington displays the fleshy, heavily-worked impasto of Freud’s later style, Still Life with Zimmerlinde has the silken clarity of his early painting at its most breathtaking. Freud’s ruthless, crystalline focus results in a work of profound honesty, capturing alive the delicacy of a new leaf, of cracked seashell, of young love.