Old People’s Party at Bethnal Green No.2 is a horizontally oriented charcoal drawing by the British artist Leon Kossoff. In the scene, large groups of older people sit hunched around two long white tables that run from the foreground to the background of the composition, one on the left hand side and the other on the right. The dark, sketchily drawn figures of the older people are positioned along the edges of the table, with some leaning on it, and many of them turn their faces towards the viewer. Although the title indicates that the drawing depicts a party, the expressive style of the charcoal marks in the work make it difficult to discern the exact nature of the activity in the scene and many of its details. For instance, the long area of white in the middle of the composition could be a third table, but it also seems to represent a pathway between the two tables, as is suggested by the presence of a figure standing on this white portion in the background of the scene. This possible flooring area and the tops of the two tables are each decorated with a pattern of grey diamonds that Kossoff has drawn onto the white paper, creating the impression of patterned linoleum.
This work was produced in 1958–9 when Kossoff was working in a studio in Bethnal Green in east London, not far from his childhood home in Brick Lane. To make works such as this one, Kossoff would walk around Bethnal Green with his drawing boards and observe the area, stopping frequently to sketch scenes that caught his eye. He would then return to his nearby studio and work on the drawings further, often making paintings based on them (although this is not the case for Old People’s Party at Bethnal Green No.2). This particular drawing was created after Kossoff visited a local home for older people when its residents were holding a social event, and the title’s suffix, ‘No.2’, suggests that he may have created more than one work depicting this experience.
Kossoff is well known for his paintings and drawings that depict scenes of his native London (see, for instance, Building Site, Oxford Street 1952, Tate T07199). In an attempt to improve his draughtsmanship early in his career, Kossoff had attended the British artist David Bomberg’s (1890–1957) evening drawing classes at Borough Polytechnic in London from 1950 to 1952. This was an extremely formative experience for Kossoff, who stated in 1997 that attending the classes felt ‘like coming home’, especially when compared to the formal nature of the drawing lessons at St Martin’s School of Art in London, where Kossoff had studied from 1949 to 1953 (quoted in Moorhouse 1995, p.12). Kossoff was impressed with Bomberg’s fluid style of drawing, recalling in 1997 that ‘once I watched him draw over a student’s drawing. I saw the flow of form, saw the likeness of the sitter appear. It seemed an encounter with what was already there’ (quoted in Moorhouse 1995, p.12). Although Kossoff’s forms are less abstract and sharply defined than those of Bomberg – see, for instance, Bomberg’s well-known painting The Mud Bath 1914 (Tate T00656) – the odd perspective and the angular lines that make up the bodies and furniture in Kossoff’s drawings, such as Old People’s Party at Bethnal Green No.2, appear in some way indebted to Bomberg’s jagged geometric style.
This work is typical of the expressionist style that Kossoff had begun to refine by the late 1950s, by which point the artist’s reputation had started to grow significantly. In 1956, two years before Kossoff began this drawing, he was taken on by Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery in London, which was known for representing young painters. By the time Old People’s Party at Bethnal Green No.2 was finished, Kossoff held teaching positions at three of London’s most prestigious art schools: Chelsea School of Art, St Martin’s School of Art and Regent Street Polytechnic. Kossoff is a member of the influential School of London, a group of painters working in London during the 1960s and 1970s that included R.B. Kitaj, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Although only loosely considered an art historical movement, the School of London explored new approaches to figurative drawing and painting at a time when art had become dominated by minimalism and conceptualism.
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996.
John Berger, ‘Drawing: Correspondence with Leon Kossoff’, in John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, London 2001, pp.69–84.
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art, London 2013.
Supported by Christie’s.