A Welsh landscape

Lucian Freud, one of the UK’s most distinguished artists, sadly died in 2011 at the age of 88. His career spanned over six decades and featured hundreds of paintings, etchings and drawings.

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In 2008, the GAC was privileged when Freud, accompanied by his assistant David Dawson (who also has works in the Collection) came to the headquarters of the GAC to revisit his ‘Welsh Landscape’ (image 1), painted between 1939 and 1940. Freud’s reaction on reuniting with this work was quite extraordinary. Clearly moved, the artist placed his hands on the surface of the painting, in a gesture that showed his emotional reconnection with the work.

Freud was just 17 in 1939 when he went to stay in Capel Curig, north Wales, accompanied by his friend David Kentish, and the poet Stephen Spender.  They rented rooms in a small house called ‘Haulfryn’ from a retired quarryman, Evan Pritchard, for three pounds and ten shillings a week. While staying there, Freud painted ‘Welsh Landscape’, one of several paintings, ink drawings and sketches made during the visit.

The building depicted in ‘Welsh Landscape’ is the bothy, or small mountain hut, in which Freud painted alone every day. The same bothy appears in another well-known work by him, ‘Box of Apples in Wales’ (1939–40, private collection). The landscape is an early example of Freud’s dexterity at applying varied brushstrokes to create different textured surfaces of paint. He would later develop these techniques to more striking effects in his famous nude portraits.

In ‘Welsh Landscape’ he has used a succession of rapid brushstrokes for the bothy’s walls to create a mosaic-like surface for the rough stone of the building. In contrast, the dappled blends of dark browns, mauve, greens and greys of the surrounding landscape and mountains appear more ethereal in treatment.

Freud was born in Berlin, the grandson of the great Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the brother of the actor Clement Freud. As Jews, his family had to flee Germany in 1933 and they settled in London. Largely a self-taught artist, Freud was encouraged from an early age to develop an interest in art. Hanging on his walls at home, he saw reproductions of early Northern European art including paintings and woodcuts by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).

Both ‘Welsh Landscape’ and ‘Box of Apples in Wales’ were painted during the first months of the Second World War. Their vision is severe and unforgiving. As several critics have remarked these early pictures share a directness and unblinking concentration upon the world, as if the artist was able to see for the first time.
Even at this early stage in his career, Freud demonstrates the impact of focusing on a single motif or subject, managing in ‘Welsh Landscape’ to convey his affection for the hut and its solitary location. At the same time, the raw intensity of the work is disquieting and points towards the uneasy tension that pervades his later works and for which he became so well known.