At home with the Freuds: an inspiring afternoon exploring the Hampstead residence of the father of psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud In Home Office At Desk

The first thing that struck me upon entering The Freud Museum was how much it still feels like a family home, even though it has not been used as one for several decades. I was at the London house of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and his family; latterly owned by his youngest daughter, Anna – herself a pioneering child psychoanalyst.

But why did Freud, who had lived, studied and worked in Vienna for most of his life, turn his world upside down and move, aged 82, to London in 1938? The answer is as you’ve probably already guessed. Storm clouds had been gathering in Europe throughout most of the 1930s; indeed, Freud had seen books written by him and fellow members of the Jewish community burned by the Nazis as far back as 1933. Many of his colleagues chose to emigrate but, ever the optimist, Freud refused to leave – however, after Austria was annexed by the Nazis in 1938 and his family began suffering harassment, he was left with very little choice. Thanks to a well-connected friend, Princess Marie Bonaparte, Freud obtained exit visas for himself, his wife Martha, their children, grandchildren and housekeeper, as well as for Martha’s sister, Minna. Tragically, the Princess was unable to procure visas for Freud’s four elderly sisters, all of whom would die in Nazi concentration camps.

20 Maresfield Gardens, in Hampstead, became home to the Freuds in September 1938. I fell in love with it the moment I arrived and can honestly say that I never expected to learn so much while I was there – and about so many subjects. I’m going to take you around the house room by room and tell you just a little bit about each one – in the hope that you, too, will pay a visit to the Freud family’s cherished home.

Upon entering the house, my attention was soon drawn by an interesting collection of personal items on display; how lovely to find so many items with emotional significance to Freud. His wedding ring, engraved with Martha’s name, a leather wallet containing a lock of Martha’s hair and their 1866 wedding menu, a photo of Freud with his mother, together with the overcoat that Freud was wearing when they escaped from Austria: warm reminders of Freud the individual rather than Freud the psychoanalyst.

As you wander from the hallway into Freud’s study, your senses are almost overwhelmed. It’s a large room, but one that’s filled to the brim with furniture: tables, chairs, a desk, oriental rugs, comfy armchairs, friezes – not to mention cabinet after cabinet of urns, jars, rocks, masks, bowls and figurines. As you take in the scene, however, the various items begin to come together. Freud had a passion for Egyptian, Greek and Roman history and began collecting related artefacts after his father’s death in 1896. There are far too many to describe in any detail, but one of the items which meant a lot to Freud is the statue of Athena, facing his desk – this was smuggled out of Vienna by Marie Bonaparte a few weeks before Freud’s own departure in 1938.

The pièce de resistance is, of course, the famous psychoanalytic couch which Freud brought to London with him, together with his desk, carpets, library, pictures and collection of antiquities. This couch was given to Freud by a patient in around 1891 and it became the cornerstone of his practice. While his patients reclined upon the couch, Freud would listen, unseen, from the green tub chair that you can also see in the photo. One of Freud’s patients compared this room with an archaeologist’s study – a description which suits it perfectly. Freud set this room up to replicate his consulting room in Vienna – and Anna would maintain the room in exactly the same way, in tribute to her father.

It is clear from the many books lining the shelves in this room that here lived a person with wide-ranging tastes. And indeed, as you progress through the house you begin to gain an understanding of just how well-educated and culturally-rounded Sigmund Freud was. Books and journals on biology, medicine and psychology you would expect – and they are plentiful – but there are also countless volumes on archaeology, history, art, philosophy and literature; this is someone who consumed books greedily, and with much pleasure. I later learned that, before fleeing Vienna, Freud sold over 800 books – but that he still managed to transport over 1,600 titles to London.

After the cluttered, albeit fascinating, environment of the study, arriving in the dining room was a breath of fresh air. I was impressed by the painted cabinets and ottomans; these, it transpired, belonged to Anna and she had them brought over from her Viennese country cottage. Freud’s presence can be still be felt, though, and is reflected in the portrait of him that hangs above the fireplace and the print of Mount Fuji which was a gift from one of his patients.

The next stop on my tour was probably my favourite of them all. The ‘Half Landing’, as it is known, is a cosy nook halfway up the stairs which has been furnished with a table, armchairs and, you’ve guessed it, yet more books. It’s where Martha and Minna would sit for hours, sipping tea and doing needlework – it was also a favourite place of Anna’s, to whom the books belong. Seeing it with the sun pouring in through the windows, illuminating the plants dotted along the windowsill, I could completely understand why the family enjoyed spending so much time here.

The Half Landing
The Half-Landing


Upstairs, there was one room in particular which piqued my interest. Known as the Anna Freud Room, it is dedicated to the woman who began her career as a primary school teacher and went on to become a renowned child psychologist. On display are a number of belongings which reflect Anna’s life and career: photos, books (including Marilyn Monroe’s memoir; the two were friends), her leather travel case, jewellery gifted to her by her father, letters and, perhaps most poignantly, film footage of Anna and her lifelong friend and fellow psychoanalyst Dorothy Burlingham at their Suffolk cottage.

Sadly, although Freud loved his London home and settled very happily in this city, he was destined not to spend much time in England. Already suffering from cancer when he arrived, Freud continued to see a few patients and to write his final books; he also welcomed lots of visitors to his home, from family members, friends and colleagues through to fellow refugees, literary and artistic figures. During the last days of Freud’s life, when he was too ill to move, a bed was set up for him in his much-loved study, looking out through the French doors into the garden – and it was here that Freud died, in September 1939. Martha, Minna and Anna continued to live in the house, with Anna eventually inheriting it; she would live here until her death in 1982.

It’s a testament to the trustees of the Museum that they have managed to retain the warmth and charm of the Freud family’s house, while creating a museum which appeals to both the young and the old and to those interested – and not so interested – in psychoanalysis (before today, I would have counted myself in the latter group). It was an absolute pleasure spending time here, learning more about this inspiring family, whose love and support enabled Freud and Anna to achieve so much during their lifetimes.

The Freud Museum
20 Maresfield Gardens – home to the Freuds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s