The painting was found in the cellar of artist Elizabeth Bodman, who died in 2015, and was assumed to be painted by her husband and fellow artist Tom Wright, a wartime acquaintance of Freud.
Wright, an apprentice plasterer and sign painter in Hadleigh, Suffolk, was hanging a pub sign at The Shoulder of Mutton, in which the young Freud was drinking just before the Second World War. Freud befriended him and persuaded him to join him at The East Anglian School of Painting & Drawing. The school’s founder, Sir Cedric Morris, waived Wright’s fees in lieu of his handyman skills.
Canvases were in short supply during the war and it is believed a number of students would re-use supplies discarded by other students.
The painting was discovered in Bodman’s home when a probate valuation was completed on her estate. However, on the back of the canvas it was signed ‘Lucian’ and on closer inspection a landscape thought to be by Freud was discovered underneath the work by Wright. The landscape, Suffolk Landscape with Welsh Mountains Beyond, has now been completely revealed and will be offered at Sworders’ auction in Stansted Mountfitchet on July 11 with a £20,000-30,000 estimate.
But ATG can reveal that underneath this work there is evidence a Freud portrait could also have originally painted on the same canvas.
During the lengthy conservation process, first removing Wright’s landscape, then the layers of pink and white ground he had painted over Suffolk Landscape with Welsh Mountains Beyond, a couple of small areas of the present landscape inevitably came away too.
This revealed a further layer of paint, which Sworders said is “not only is in a palette more associated with Freud’s early portraits, but were it to be a portrait, would bring understanding to the orientation of the inscription/signature verso. Because it is very likely that Freud painted Suffolk Landscape with Welsh Mountains Beyond, thus himself choosing to paint over whatever lies beneath, clearly the decision to leave the painting as it currently is was inevitable.”
Experts contacted by Sworders are inclined to believe it is by Freud. Robert Upstone, a former senior Tate curator, said: “I have made comparison with other examples of Freud’s writing and it is evident the signature is undoubtedly in his hand……it became absolutely clear that there are three layers of painting, the presence of Freud’s signature logically and forcefully suggests that what lay underneath - whether abandoned or uncompleted - was painted by Freud himself.”
However Toby Treves and Catherine Lampert, who are compiling the catalogue raisonné of Freud, said they “can’t agree to include it in our forthcoming catalogue raisonné… In the event that more evidence comes to light, we would be happy to consider it again”.
Freud took a painting trip to Wales in autumn 1939 and created his first significant body of work. In an interview Freud had once said that while at East Anglia he attempted to paint trees and traditional landscapes. But this was a subject that he rarely returned to.
The painting is now being sold by the beneficiaries of the estate of Elizabeth Wright (née Bodman) at Sworders July 11 Modern British Art auction.