This large and imposing oil painting belongs to a series of works – which began in 1976 and continued until the late 1980s – by the British painter Leon Kossoff depicting Kilburn Underground station in north-west London. In the foreground of this work, two men and three women walk through the station’s booking hall, and more shadowy human forms can be glimpsed on the staircase leading up to the platforms in the background and on the right-hand side of the painting. With the exception of the brighter clothing worn by some of the figures in the foreground, the palette is distinguished by cloudy blues, pinks and whites, and the painting seems filled with a distinct gloom, perhaps reflecting the drudgery of the daily commute. The figures are locked into a loose structure of vertical and diagonal lines formed by the booking hall’s roof and tilted-up floor.
Kossoff has said that, when painting public scenes such as Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground 1987, portraits of people close to him begin to appear within the crowds (see Rose 2013, p.18). Without exactly specifying the figures, curator Paul Moorhouse has identified the group in the foreground of this painting as comprising Kossoff’s wife, Peggy, his brothers, and his long-time model and friend Fidelma (Moorhouse 1996, p.24).
The production of Kossoff’s large-scale city scenes also relied upon the extensive charcoal drawings that the artist made on location. In a letter to Tate dated 16 November 1975, Kossoff explained, ‘All the time I am working on a landscape in the studio I am referring to the drawings I constantly do from the subject. I pin the drawings on the wall of the studio and change them frequently in the course of the time I am working on the painting’ (quoted in The Tate Gallery 1974–6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978, pp.117–18). Typically, Kossoff scraped down and re-painted the same subject over weeks and months, before the final image was painted rapidly, in just a few hours.
The texture of Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground is characteristic in this regard: paint is applied liberally and energetically, its viscous matter pushed and pulled across the board support with broad strokes, while thin ribbons of pigment splatter and skim across the surface. Despite Kossoff’s works emerging from direct observation, capturing the physical and visual sensation of the scene takes precedence over exact representational accuracy. With their quickly and densely applied paint, his works can be compared in this regard to the paintings of Frank Auerbach, with whom Kossoff studied at London’s Borough Polytechnic, both artists taking special classes with the painter David Bomberg from 1950 to 1952.
London has been a source of particular inspiration for Kossoff. With the exception of a spell in Norfolk as a wartime evacuee (1939–43) and his overseas military service (1945–8), he has lived and worked in the city his entire life. ‘London, like the paint I use, seems to be in my bloodstream’, he has claimed. ‘It’s always moving – the skies, the streets, the buildings. The people who walk past me when I draw have become part of my life.’ (Quoted in Moorhouse 1996, p.36.) Sites of circulation and transportation in London have been a persistent theme in Kossoff’s work, and he has also depicted stations such as Mornington Crescent, Willesden Junction, Dalston Junction, King’s Cross, St Pancras, and Embankment (see The Flower and Fruit Stalls, Embankment 1995 1995, Tate T07297).
Kilburn Underground station is a ten-minute walk from Kossoff’s home and studio in the London suburb of Willesden, where he has lived since 1966. Other works from his series on the station focus on the elevated railway bridge, the entrance to the station, and the people and traffic on surrounding roads. Tate also holds two prints from this series, Outside Kilburn Underground 1984 (Tate P77103) and Going Home 1984 (Tate P77052). Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground relates to an earlier painting called Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground No.2 1977, in which the interior of the station is painted from the same perspective, but with more clarity and brightness, and with only four main figures. Moorhouse has noted that the Kilburn Underground paintings Kossoff developed during the 1980s are marked by ‘an increasing freedom from the precise appearance of the subject’ (Moorhouse 1996, p.24).
Kossoff was chosen to represent Britain at the 1995 Venice Biennale, and this painting occupied the main room in the British Pavilion.
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Amsterdam 1995, reproduced pp.38–9.
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.9, 24–5, reproduced p.115.
Andrea Rose, Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art, London 2013, reproduced p.20.
Supported by Christie’s.