Number 20 Maresfield Gardens is not just another huge red brick Edwardian house in Hampstead. It was home to Sigmund Freud during the last year of his life and now houses the collections and the cultural legacy of Freud and his daughter, Anna.

These days Freud often gets a bad press and we have almost forgotten what he tried to achieve. By trying to measure and quantify the unconscious Freud wanted to attempt the impossible; delving deeply, boldly venturing into the depths of our ancestral and primal memories and resurfacing with our psyche’s buried treasures. At the time, Freud’s work was revolutionary.

Here in Hampstead, Freud was able to recreate his study, bringing his extensive library and much-loved collection of antiquities all the way from 19 Berggasse in Vienna.

We step through the blue front doors leading to a spacious hallway. Stepping into Freud’s study feels like stepping into a dark labyrinth, a dimmed archive filled with his personal collection of accumulated treasures. I’m excited to be here and pause to take a few deep breaths, trying to get a sense of place.

Freud’s worn leather desk is crowded with antiquities, from miniature statuettes and jade bowls to small silver ink stands. His reading glasses rest on some papers. I take in the studious intensity surrounded by books and papers and get an instant feeling of earthiness, although I wouldn’t describe it as serene, but rather a cave of intellectual activity.

Every wall is lined with hardback dusty books, including literature like Flaubert and Goethe, and among 2,000 musty objects of antiquity and cabinets crammed with figurines. I get a sense of the fullness of Freud’s interests; his fascination with primitive cultures is quite clear and I marvel at the many goddesses on display. Strange Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental deities along with amulets and bowls. I’ve never even heard of the baboon of Thoth, the Egyptian goddess representing a balance between instinct and intellect and associated with Hermes.

The medical world Freud was living in was ignorant of the subtleties of the human psyche and Freud questioned the physical treatment of mental symptoms using, at the time, ineffective and even brutal methods. As a young doctor working alongside Breuer, Freud’s interests lay in neurophysiology. Eventually circumstances led him to train and then develop his own clinical practice in 1886.

Before Freud, things were attributed to the ‘physical’ but he hypothesised that neurosis and hysteria must be born out of deeply buried content within the human psyche. Freud’s work on hysteria led to an interest in hypnotism and to developing “the talking cure.” For Freud, various neurotic symptoms didn’t just mean that a person was simply 'sick'. This was a revolutionary and simply unprecedented approach.

The couch, central to the construction of a psychoanalytic setting, is draped with soft Oriental carpets highly decorated in warm reds and swirling patterns. I can’t believe I’m here and am smiling as I imagine reclining on it and feeling the fear and excitement of being analysed by Freud. I would ‘free associate’ and tell him all about my dreams, memories and fantasies. The thought of it makes me feel elated and petrified at the same time. I’m sure among his first discoveries about me and after only a few sessions Freud would confirm in his thick Austro-Hungarian accent: “I believe this is a case of acute primary narcissism!” My daughter chuckles in agreement.

One of Freud’s patients, a Russian aristocrat known as the ‘Wolf-man’, talked about how "there was always a feeling of sacred peace and quiet here. The rooms in no way reminded one of a doctor’s office but rather an archaeologist’s study… like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.”

I walk up the stairs. Light from the huge sash windows pours into the spacious landing, lighting up the two portraits of Freud. We are then led into Anna Freud’s study. Later, we sit in the garden and have our lunch. We chat about what we’ve seen. My daughter thought it was quite a weird place. She can’t believe how nobody even knew what the unconscious was and has found it intriguing to see “the workspace of a genius”.

I tell her a little bit about 1896, when Freud coined the term psychoanalysis, and 1900 when he completed The Interpretation of Dreams, which confirmed that dreams represent the fulfilment of wishes and provide evidence that we have an unconscious. Here, Freud proposes that most of our mental activity and what drives us remains unconscious and that dreams are “the royal road to the discovery of unconscious activities of the mind”.

Nowadays, I doubt there is anybody in the field of psychology that has not been influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas, whether to criticise or praise him. For me, Freud was a revolutionary and a radical thinker. Nobody before him had ever proposed such expansive possibilities in the understanding of the human psyche.

As we leave the house where the sun set on Freud’s life, I feel a profound gratitude. I don’t feel at peace exactly but in awe, thrilled, inspired to have been in the ghostly presence of a genius. It has been a wonderful opportunity to see how he set up his study, what he was interested in, what he felt passionately about and what truly fascinated him. I feel a sense of fulfilment and have experienced a sense of place and connection to where the earth-shattering psychoanalytic theories lived and breathed.

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.