This print is one of many etchings executed by Leon Kossoff in response to, and literally in the presence of, oil paintings by old masters; in this case The Consecration of Saint Nicholas, before 1562, by Paulo Veronese (c.1528-88), owned by the National Gallery, London. Tate owns two prints by Kossoff after this Poussin painting (Tate P11713-14). 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.
Veronese’s painting depicts a scene from the life of Saint Nicholas, as told in the thirteenth-century book The Golden Legend. On the eve of the election of the archbishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) in the 4th century AD, it was revealed to one of the bishops that a young man called Nicholas had been divinely chosen. When Saint Nicholas presented himself at the cathedral the following day he was elected and immediately installed as archbishop. Veronese has portrayed the moment of Nicholas's recognition, or subsequent consecration. Nicholas approaches the altar while an angel descends from the sky, bearing the vestments of office: a bishop’s stole, crozier (staff) and mitre. Kossoff’s response to this painting is a busy, heavily-worked composition. Lines are repeatedly drawn, certain areas are frenetically hatched and cross-hatched, all of which give the work an air of action and emotional drama. It is the heads of the figures that stand out from this mass of strokes, as they are circles rather than straight or curved lines. The plate has been inked to add depth and tone and then selectively wiped to highlight certain areas. A consequence of the printing process is that the image is a reverse of Veronese’s original. Kossoff’s print does not compete with Veronese’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 Veronese. 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. His commitment to drawing has resulted in a decades-long dialogue with Veronese 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.
Past & Present: Contemporary Artists Drawing from the Masters, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1987, pp.38-41
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.27-30
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1995