Coombe Priory, tucked neatly into a valley bottom in England’s West Country on the border between Wiltshire and Dorset, wasn-t ever really a priory—nor, despite the gossip, is it equipped with a secret passage to Shaftesbury, the nearest town, several miles away. For the real-estate agents marketing the place over the past summer, however, one or two special features made it exceptionally good value, even at £3.75 million ($5.8 million). Rumor has it that a priest hole, for the concealment of illicit priests during the Reformation, survives somewhere on the premises. Better still, the property is situated almost within spitting distance of Ashcombe House, Tollard Royal, where until not so long ago Madonna lived with Guy Ritchie. That house was once owned by Cecil Beaton, who, back in the ’50s, photographed the then young Lucian Freud standing in front of what is now Coombe Priory’s unique selling point: a genuine Freud mural.
This mural is one of only two Freud murals now in existence. The other is at Chatsworth, country seat of the dukes of Devonshire, in which a small bathroom, off a grand bedroom fulsomely decorated by William Hogarth’s father-in-law, James Thornhill, is adorned with the beginnings of a similar Freud mural similarly featuring cyclamens in bloom.
Until quite recently, the Coombe mural lay hidden under a coat of white paint. I remember telling the then owner, ten years ago, that what could be revealed would be worth, well, almost as much as the house itself. He preferred not to have the conservators in, but his successor did, and eventually the painting resurfaced. The word “mural” may suggest large areas covered with decorative complexities. Not for Freud though. He and his second wife, Caroline Blackwood, bought Coombe as a place where she could relax a little while he stayed mainly in town, generally driving down in his Alvis on weekends only. “It was a very restless period,” he remembers. Beaton photographed him with his back to the wall on which the three leaves and single cyclamen bloom float, garlanding his head in an elegant sort of way. Fifteen or so years earlier, Freud had painted a few murals in nightclubs, a wartime canteen, and the bathroom of an actor friend. But in the mid-’50s, he was keen to avoid anything smacking of garrulity or graphic excess. Cyclamens appealed because of their fleshy petals and thick stems, and the way they collapse when dying. “They crash down,” he once explained.
The marriage soon ended, and Coombe was sold. This venture into home embellishment wasn’t a one-off, but just as Freud never remarried, he never again—apart from at Chatsworth—committed time and energy to such decor ends. In this respect, the Coombe cyclamen mural is not so much a lucky survival as a touching relic from the past, such as archeologists occasionally hit upon in previously unransacked tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
William Feaver is a London correspondent for ARTnews.