In the summer of 1945, the artists Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and John Craxton (1922-2009) skipped London for the Isles of Scilly, off the far southwest coast of England. For almost five monotonous years the friends had been confined to Britain while the war dragged on. Now that it was over, they wanted the vie de bohème at any cost. Mainland Europe was out of bounds, so the duo hatched a plan: they would go sketching on St Mary’s, the largest of the islands in the archipelago, and then stow away on a Breton fishing boat for France. Paris was their ultimate destination, where they hoped to see a Picasso exhibition.
They made a striking pair of adventurers: at 22, they were both pale, dark-haired and good-looking. Craxton’s charisma and propensity for happiness covered a multitude of misdemeanours, and endeared him to everyone. In contrast, Freud was solitary and anarchic, and described by his father as ‘a wild animal’. They were inseparable. They lived together, drew and painted each other, and sometimes even worked on the same picture.
On arrival at St Mary’s the pair were captivated by the beauty of the island. ‘It was the most amazing place,’ said Craxton. ‘Everything was reduced to one, because it was in the middle of the Atlantic. Here was the world by kind permission of this huge ocean!’
The duo never made it to Paris — they were discovered as stowaways and ignominiously brought back to St Mary’s. However, the Isles of Scilly inspired a series of extraordinary landscapes that marked the beginning of Freud’s rise to becoming one of the key figures of post-war modern painting in Britain.
Scillonian Beachscape (1945-46), is a playful, idiosyncratic work depicting a puffin perched on a rock on a flat beach, next to a monumental sea holly the colour of a verdigris statue. The scene could have been lifted from a children’s storybook, and echoes the island’s magical atmosphere — something the poet John Betjeman had noticed on visiting in 1934: ‘Everything on the Scillies is in miniature, although once on the islands one seems to be walking up hills and down valleys; the Scillies form a little world complete in themselves.’
One particularly intriguing aspect of the painting is the spiny sea holly. ‘The natural world was very important to Freud,’ says Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art specialist Claudia Schürch. ‘He thought of himself as a botanist.’ This is not as surprising as it first sounds: ‘Although he is best known for his nude portraits, plants actually feature in many of Freud’s paintings,’ says Schürch.
In fact, for many years plants were the only constant in a life lived furtively, moving on from one address to another, casting aside friends and lovers (including Craxton), but always with a large, straggling zimmerlinde or a yucca tree in tow. These botanical subjects are the focus of the current exhibition Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits at the Garden Museum in London.
When Freud eventually settled for good at 138 Kensington Church Street in London’s Notting Hill, in the 1990s, he let nature take its course in the property’s 50ft-long garden. ‘He planted things and let them grow, grow and grow,’ recalls his studio assistant David Dawson. ‘He never touched anything, because he wanted the garden to have a sense of the real, of naturalness.’ Weeds abounded, bedding their brittle taproots and spreading their seeds across the bare soil until tougher plants overtopped them: apple trees, hydrangeas, buddleias and bay trees formed a dense, drooping canopy. Freud painted them all in their green-soaked melancholy.
By now Freud had switched from using a sable paintbrush to a hog-hair, and the marks were coarser and broader. Garden from the Window (2002) depicts the large, tangled buddleia that grew in the centre of his wild plot.
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‘It is a remarkable painting,’ says Schürch. ‘He is treating the plant as if it is one of his figures. There is the same scrutiny and observation.’ Scillonian Beachscape and Garden from the Window reveal Freud’s desire to convey what he once described as ‘a really biological feeling of things growing and fading’.