"It seems absolutely obvious, as well as convenient, to use as a subject what you are thinking and looking at all the time, the way your life goes."
- Lucian Freud in William Feaver, 'Seeing Through the Skin' in The Guardian, 2002.
Having gazed upon the view depicted in Waste Ground with Houses, Paddington for four years between moving into his studio at Gloucester Terrace in 1967 and beginning this work, it is perhaps not surprising, in light of the sentiments expressed in that quotation, that Freud considered the scene from the back window of his studio a worthy subject for his painterly talents. The work depicts the rear elevations of two rows of Victorian townhouses, bounding a space filled with urban clutter and mixed vegetation. An unusual departure from his customary subject matter, this work marks the most accomplished in an admittedly limited oeuvre of what may be loosely described as townscapes.
With only a thin glimpse of sky with its hint of blue, at the top of the picture plane, the artist draws the viewer into an urban patchwork of buildings, bricks and chimney-tops, its enclosed nature preventing one from truly accepting the term 'townscape' to describe it. A series of vertical lines intersected by curving horizontal planes fortify the composition, further adding to the sense of an enclosed area, while dozens of little white window-panes orbit the central mass of waste ground, reinforcing our gaze and, in some sense returning it like so many tiny eyes.
Despite possessing the incisive detail of his portraits, this painting possesses a markedly bold composition which, when combined with the artist's use of colour and line, borders on abstraction. Although sometimes described as cold and drab, it is clear from the light hitting the sides of the chimney-breasts that the work was probably finished over a string of bright spring and summer days. The leafy presence of the Buddleia davidii, ground elder and rosebay willowherb (sometimes referred to as 'Bombweed' due its propensity to flourish on burnt earth and waste grounds left by the bombings of World War II), suggests that the artist painted these parts of the work around June, when all three species of plant are in leaf.
In shape and orientation, this work echoes the portrait. It may not be too great a claim to suggest that Freud saw the view as being just that: a portrait. Beginning this work shortly after the death of his father, the architect Ernst Freud, in April 1970, it is perhaps of some significance that the artist chose to turn his attention to the buildings around him. "The subject matter has always been dictated by the way my life has gone. I noticed that when I was under particular strain, I didn't feel so like staring at people or bodies all day." However, as Bruce Bernard suggested in his 1996 publication Lucian Freud, the artist painted buildings as he painted people, plotting their complexities and exterior physical detail with patience and exactitude. Arguably, this painting is less about the buildings represented and more about the vantage point from which we regard them. Here, we see what Freud saw each day as he looked out of his studio, and therefore a piercingly accurate glimpse into what may, at first glance, be considered one of the more mundane elements of his life.
But if one considers a self-portrait an exercise in introspection, and a portrait of someone else as an exploration into that person's psyche in addition to the artist's relationship to them, then this painting of the view from the studio window is a consideration by Freud as to his place in the world. In it, he describes his surroundings as components of his studio itself, showing the viewer a detailed edge of what we must assume is his porch or balcony wall at the bottom of the picture place, to further prompt this effect. The view, along with the mass of disordered clutter, is an extension of his working environment, becoming as much an influence on his paintings as the studio furniture or the colour of the interior walls. This being the case, it is not surprising that Freud reportedly “felt the rubbish must be...exact”, paying dustmen to leave parts of the debris behind, as each element proved essential to the composition.
The Painter's Mother II, executed by Freud in the same year, provides compelling insight into the artist's (and his mother's) emotional and mental state in the wake of his father's death, during which time he completed Waste Ground with Houses. Although he tended to avoid his mother earlier in life, they had become very close by this time, and he painted her portrait on numerous occasions between the time at which his father died up until his mother's own death in 1989. In this painting, we see Lucie Freud with pursed lips and furrowed brow, staring intensely into a space behind and to the right of the viewer. Badly depressed after the death of her husband, one senses through the pained anxiety with which he has rendered her expression, Freud's concern for his mother.
By comparison, Waste Ground with Houses appears almost serene. Any angst represented by the debris remains nicely fenced in and well-balanced by the order of the surrounding buildings. In this way, the enclosed nature of the scene provides a sense of security. In Factory in North London, another of Freud's 'townscapes' painted in the same year, we see this hemmed-in space repeated by the high walls that neatly enclose his subject. Various elements, such as railings and windows that existed in the real view were reportedly omitted in Waste Ground with Houses. Whilst it is possible these deletions were solely in aid of a more harmonious composition, one wonders if they perhaps reflect the artist's determination to represent a space that appeared and performed exactly as he wanted it to; providing respite from the increasingly troubling world around him.
Despite the deeply emotional charge of the painting, it remains impossible to overlook the technical skill with which the artist has executed this work. Probably returning to the use of a sable brush (he switched from sable to hogs hair brushes some years earlier) to complete at least the smoother planes in the work, Freud uses colour to describe more hues and shades than may actually have been visible to the naked eye. The chimney-tops, for example, are beautifully rendered in an impossible number of colours, each one (especially those that grace the rear row of houses) becoming a miniature work of art in itself. At the other end of the picture plane, the artist displays such absolute attention to detail in the rendering of the central area that, in addition to being able to identify the various plant species, the viewer can also pick out specific objects such as dog bowls and bedsheets. Indeed, whilst we stay with Freud for his fascinating and often emotional projections, his unparalleled skill (which accounts for his continuing reputation as possibly the finest of the Post-War British painters) is the reason we looked in the first place.
Bernard, B. Lucian Freud, London, 1996.
Feaver, W. Lucian Freud, London, 2002.
Feaver, W. 'Seeing Through the Skin' in The Guardian, 2002.
Glover, M. 'Great Works: The Painter's Mother II, 1972, Lucian Freud' in The Independent, 2012.
Heynen, N. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, Oxford, 2006.