This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by other artists; in this case Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831, by John Constable (1776-1837), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Constable painting (Tate P11706-7). The artist’s ability to explore a number of separate responses while making drawings and prints from a single subject is illustrated in these etchings. This print was never published as an edition; Tate owns the only trial proof.
In Constable’s painting Salisbury Cathedral is seen from the north-west, with Long Bridge over the River Avon on the extreme right. The most striking feature of the composition is the rainbow arching above and to the right of the Cathedral which is echoed in the tree to the foreground. Kossoff’s response to this painting is densely worked. The plate is dark: drypoint has been added and the plate has been selectively wiped to highlight certain areas of the work. The rainbow and tree are, as with Constable’s painting, the most prominent features of the composition. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Constable’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Constable’s painting, nor does it seek to transcribe, copy or paraphrase it. Rather, it acknowledges the gulf that separates it from the pictorial culture of former times and reveals his desire to find points of contact with Constable. Kossoff has described the value of this kind of draughtsmanship as a means to building up an acquaintance with the subject of a picture made by another artist until he feels free to ‘move about in its imaginative spaces’ (Kendall, p.19).
Kossoff has taken inspiration from old master paintings at The National Gallery for most of his life, since first visiting it in the late 1940s. Kossoff’s commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Constable and others. For Kossoff, drawing is rooted in close observation of, and is a way of getting closer to, the subject being drawn. It involves going beyond the observed: forming a relation with the motif at a deeper level, a process involving the growth of understanding and sympathy. He sees the act of drawing as a reciprocal process; thus making graphic transcriptions of images by older artists is his way of bonding more closely with them, exploring their mysteries and celebrating their power.
The etching plates were prepared by Ann Dowker, a London artist who later collaborated with Kossoff on biting the plates with acid, wiping them before printing, and making trial proofs. In some cases, areas of the etchings were washed with aquatint; in others, lines were emphasised by drypoint. The etchings were printed by Mark Balakjian at Studio Prints, London.
Richard Kendall, Drawn to Painting, London 2000
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, pp.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995