The Flower and Fruit Stalls, Embankment 1995 is a large oil painting on hardboard by the British painter and draughtsman Leon Kossoff. In the foreground five figures move either away from or towards Embankment Underground station in London. A female figure in an orange dress is prominent among this group and walks purposefully from the centre of the composition to the right of the foreground. She passes another, less sharply delineated female figure who is walking towards the station. One male figure painted in white and blue moves out of the composition at the extreme left, while a second man outlined heavily in dark blue paint pauses to glance at a flower stand. A woman in a pale blue dress crouches to reach some of the flowers in front of the stand and another figure, possibly the stall’s vendor, stands behind her in the middle ground. What appear to be four parasols in brighter colours are spaced horizontally across the middle of the composition. The background is peopled by shadowy, rapidly painted figures who blend with the architectural features of the stands and the station. The sharply angled awnings of the fruit stand and the station give a sense of depth, and mauves, blues, pinks and creams dominate the composition, punctuated by oranges and yellows.
Kossoff created this painting in August 1995, most likely in his studio in Willesden Green in north-west London, to which he had moved in 1966. The image has been painted on the textured side of a single sheet of hardboard. This supports the characteristically thick surface of the painting, which in areas stands at a depth of 7 mm from the surface of the hardboard. The oil paint was most likely applied straight from the tube using a brush, but there are also flat areas of paint indicating the use of a palette knife. Kossoff has built up the thick impasto of the surface by applying the paint in many layers. The wet-on-wet style that the artist employed has led to the mixing of colours in areas on the surface and means that the paint layers, and the forms themselves, have become blended together.
The work is part of a series of urban landscapes, begun by Kossoff in 1993, of the area around Embankment. Kossoff has located the image firmly by painting the station name and the London Underground insignia prominently in the top of the composition. The motif of the London rail system has been recurrent in Kossoff’s work, as can be seen in his Outside Kilburn Underground 1981 (Tate P02935) and Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground 1987 (Tate T05531). Around 1993 he began revisiting Embankment, the area he had drawn as a student in the 1940s and 1950s with his long-time friend, the painter Frank Auerbach. Kossoff’s drawings resulted in a series of four paintings depicting the different seasons, of which this was the final one produced (see also Embankment Station and Hungerford Bridge, Winter 1993–4, L.A. Louver, Venice, California; The Flower Stall, Embankment Station (Stormy Spring) 1994, L.A. Louver, Venice, California; and The Flower Stall, Embankment Station, Spring 1994). Executed at the height of summer, the emphasis in this painting on blues, mauves and pinks coupled with bright details, such as the orange dress of the woman in the foreground, capture the feeling of a warm summer’s day. The curator Paul Moorhouse has described how Kossoff depicted ‘the flower and fruit stalls, shimmering in the heat of the afternoon as if, for a moment, London had become Venice’ (Moorhouse 1996, p.36).
Kossoff’s railway paintings were an opportunity to explore the masses of people and their constant movement through the city. This image is painted from street level as if the artist and viewer are located very squarely within the bustle of the crowds. This painting and the others in the series can be regarded as portraits of London itself: the paintings swarm with activity and, as Moorhouse describes it, ‘small figures come and go as if engaged in an endless dance of life’ (Moorhouse 1996, p.36).
Kossoff is known as an expressionist painter who works directly from his own experience. Images such as this one, with its use of heavy impasto and vivid surface movement, invite formal comparison to those by Auerbach. Both artists took evening classes at Borough Polytechnic in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the painter David Bomberg (1890–1957). These classes marked a turning point in Kossoff’s developing style, away from the strictly academic syllabus of St Martin’s School of Art where he had studied in 1943–5. Kossoff reflected in 1995 that Bomberg’s classes were ‘like coming home’, and he recalled how ‘I watched him drawing over a student’s drawing. I saw the flow of form, saw the likeness to the sitter appear. It seemed like an encounter with what was already there’ (quoted in Moorhouse 1996, p.12).
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Amsterdam 1995.
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.36, reproduced p.157.
Andrea Rose, Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art, London 2013.
Supported by Christie’s.