Heritage: Sigmund Freud met his greatest admirer Salvadore Dali at Primrose Hill home
- Credit: Archant
In the latest of our series shining a spotlight on the lives and times of those who have been celebrated with commemorative plaques across the capital, Adam Sonin explores the life of Sigmund Freud, who lived in Primrose Hill and Hampstead.
In 1938, 55 years after Karl Marx’s death, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, reluctantly fled Nazi-occupied Vienna to find safety in London.
As with Marx, Freud’s ideas and religion had angered those in positions of power but it was the arrest of his youngest daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982), by the Gestapo that finally led him to leave.
He later commented that “the feeling of triumph on being liberated is too strongly mixed with sorrow for in spite of everything I still greatly loved the prison from which I have been released”.
Freud travelled to Paris and then London by train, a form of transport he disliked.
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His “libido was awakened” as a young boy after seeing his mother naked on a train and it was through this early experience that his most famous theory, the Oedipus complex, developed.
On arrival at Victoria Station the train had to be re-routed to another platform in order to avoid the attention of the world’s press.
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As Freud arrived in London, a young Salvador Dali (1904–1989) sat in a Paris cafe eating a plate of snails. While thumbing through a newspaper he read news of his hero.
He later recalled: “I had just that instant discovered the morphological secret of Freud! Freud’s cranium is a snail! His brain is in the form of a spiral – to be extracted with a needle!”
Dali managed to contact the author Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), an admirer of his own work and a close friend of Freud’s.
Zweig asked whether he would meet “the only painter of genius in our epoch”, explaining that “he is the most faithful and most grateful disciple of your ideas among the artists”. Freud agreed and a meeting was arranged.
As Dali approached Freud’s first London house, 39 Elsworthy Road, in Primrose Hill, accompanied by the author, he noticed something he thought to be significant.
“I saw a bicycle leaning up against the wall, and on the saddle, attached by a string, was a red rubber hot-water bottle which looked full of water, and on the back of the hot-water bottle walked a snail!”
Dali remembered that “we devoured each other with our eyes” as he spoke no German or English.
The artist began to sketch the head of his idol creating an image which resembled both Freud and a snail.
As he continued, Freud whispered in German, “That boy looks like a fanatic. Small wonder that they have civil war in Spain if they look like that”.
Zweig discouraged Dali from showing his final image fearing that it might shock the elderly man.
The 82-year-old Freud was dying from jaw cancer that had plagued him for the past sixteen years.
He had developed a 20-a-day cigar habit and even after being diagnosed would prise his mouth (now fitted with a plate to allow him to eat and speak) open with a clothes peg and lodge one in.
He later remarked that, “I must be near my death - they’ve stopped telling me my cigars will kill me”.
At Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, Freud’s second home in London, his office had been arranged as in Vienna, including his famous couch and collection of antiques.
Here he met with H. G. Wells (1866–1946). Wells had proposed that he be granted immediate British citizenship conferred by an act of Parliament and Freud was interested in the idea.
With only three months to live he wrote to Wells: “You cannot have known that since I first came over to England as a boy of 18 years, it became an intense wish fantasy of mine to settle in this country and become an Englishman.
“Two of my half brothers had done so 15 years before.
“But an infantile fantasy needs a bit of examination before it can be admitted to reality’.
He was also visited by Leonard (1880–1969) and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941).
Leonard commented in his autobiography that it was “not an easy interview”. He was extraordinarily courteous in a formal, old-fashioned way - for instance, almost ceremoniously he presented Virginia with a flower.
“There was something about him as of a half-extinct volcano, something sombre, repressed, reserved,” Leonard said.
“He gave me the feeling… of great gentleness, but behind that, great strength.”