Caught by the River

Exterior At Paddington

Adam Scovell | 4th December 2018

Adam Scovell searches for a former West London residence of Lucian Freud, as depicted in his paintings Interior at Paddington and Wasteground with Houses.

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw a painting by Lucian Freud. It was in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Alongside teapots designed by Clarice Cliff and a blown up photograph of Paul Nash hangs Freud’s 1951 painting Interior at Paddington, even to this day. I recall how it stood out from almost everything else in the gallery; how its proportions left the figure in the painting looking as if he was being slowly shrunken by forces unseen, how incredibly smart and alien the clothes looked, and how the light had such a particularity that the plant and the rug it shone down on from the window seemed almost transcendental. It was really this window in particular that caught my eye, however, and what lay outside of it: London.

London was there in the painting and seemed as exotic to me then as the various Dutch and Italian paintings did in other rooms in the gallery. It was only a glimpse of its buildings and streets, but it was enough. I had recognised the light coming in as a very particular London light, one I had seen on various giddy trips down to the capital at a young age with my parents. It is not said enough how much of London Freud really captured in his paintings. Even if the majority were interior portraits concentrating on “the human animal,” they were interiors that usually hinted at a grandiloquent but crumbling post-war London outside, like a genteel Blitz survivor. It was only much later on that I actually heard this aspect of light discussed in a documentary, where the art critic Sir John Richardson shares the following exchange with the artist, only mere days before Freud finally passed away at the age of 88 in 2011:

“You always seem to me not just a very British painter but a London painter, by virtue of the way you, more than any other painter of your generation, capture the light of London.” – Richardson

“Well I’ve always loved London, I don’t know if that explains it.” – Freud

“Your love of London is I think reflected in the light of London, whether interior paintings or exterior paintings.” – Richardson

This very specific London light – a sort of delicate, nicotine-yellow haze that flows naturally through Georgian windows – had been part of Freud’s work from the time he moved into the city. This light was undoubtedly best captured in his earlier works, when the artist first lived in a battered studio in Paddington. This was the flat where the figure of Interior at Paddington stood smoking, looking out over the bricks and chimneys. But Paddington is also the surprising subject of what is now easily my personal favourite of Freud’s paintings and British art in general: Wasteground with Houses, Paddington. The painting was developed and finished in the early years of the 1970s, before he would later move to more typically upmarket areas of the city.

The painting shows the view from what was presumably his window in the flat at 227 Gloucester Terrace. The backs of the houses opposite can be seen, seeming almost naked and vulnerable unlike their proud white-painted fronts, as can the hidden mews of the garages and an unusual piece of wasteland. In fact, judging by its title, the wasteland was the very reason for painting the scene, giving Freud the challenge of capturing the cacophony of detail seen out of the window: rubbish, bricks, buddleia, rubble, and decrepit fences. It was just as detailed a view as the haggard pallor of his later sitters: an urban skin filled with infinite scars and wrinkles. Finding out the exact address from a letter published online written by Freud in his scribbly, childlike handwriting, I wanted to see if this typically messy character of London still existed as it seemingly had done in the artwork, film and television of the post-war era.

The day was overcast as I made my way from Lancaster Gate tube station along the uneven pavement. Signs of change in the area were marked singularly by who was there, for the only people I saw were either cleaners or builders. The area has spiked in market and price, almost as much as Freud’s work itself did in the 1980s. The street snaked around as I approached Freud’s old flat, noting that I had taken on a challenge in actually getting to see behind the houses themselves. The house is part of an unusual triangular construction of large mansion blocks, framing the angled courtyard in between three roads. This is clearly what gives Freud’s painting its unusual proportions, playing to his usual strength of quietly distorting space and its inhabitants through angle and shade.

I walked the full triangle of buildings between Gloucester Terrace, Orsett Terrace and Porchester Square, figuring out how best to see Freud’s courtyard. Security cameras watched from every corner and, on talking to some builders renovating the flats next door, they suggested that the view was probably only going to be possible from higher up. But, on finding an alleyway to one side of the mews, there appeared to be a readymade balcony looking out over part of the courtyard. One builder gave further details of what could not be seen; that the wasteland was now a sort of underground car park, the old garages now amalgamated into the buildings to create more space.

I ventured down the alleyway, hanging over the wall and seeing the view. The wasteland had been tidied up; the grass neatly cut, art deco doorways leading along a pathway connecting all of the houses. I was watched with suspicion from someone out of a window as I tried to compensate for my low angle and the fact that my view was slightly to the left of what Freud had actually painted. The Polaroid snapped and, as I watched it develop, I saw Freud’s light slowly find its way into my own image, the same light I had seen all those years ago in the gallery in Liverpool. My “Exterior at Paddington” was not one that matched Freud’s in its beautiful chaos but, so I thought, no amount of development or tidying will ever steal away that radiant London light that he caught so effortlessly with his hawk-like eye.