Frank Auerbach

Oxford Street Building Site I


Not on display

Frank Auerbach born 1931
Oil paint on board
Support: 1981 × 1537 mm
frame: 2136 × 1670 × 110 mm
Purchased 1961

Display caption

Building sites in London were a favourite theme for Auerbach in the 1950s. This painting was based on drawings made looking down onto the area between Oxford Street and Cavendish Square.

Auerbach’s characteristically thick paint and earth tones evoke the grime and dirty excavation of the scene. He was interested in the complex structure made by the cranes and scaffolding; their linear pattern is etched into the paint. This is reminiscent of the strong structure often employed by Bomberg.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on a hardboard support, and is unvarnished. A layer of shellac was applied to the smooth side of the board in preparation for painting; there is no other priming layer. The support consists of two pieces of hardboard butt-joined horizontally about one third of the way down from the top. Stamps on the reverse of both boards read ‘Royal Board Made in Sweden’. The paint is comprised of extremely thick impasto paint that is roughly 25 mm thick. Some regions of paint have a medium-rich and glossy surface that fluoresces green under ultraviolet light. Other regions of paint appear matte. Auerbach used brushes, a variety of palette knives, and his fingers, to apply and sculpt the paint. In some areas the paint was scraped perhaps using the handle of a brush to create lines in the heavy impasto. Auerbach is known to have repeatedly scraped down his paintings and reworked them as part of his painting technique and it is likely that this painting was also created over a long period of time.

In an interview with Catherine Lampert for the 2015 Tate exhibition, Auerbach discusses his preference for using oil paint: ‘I don’t have any attachment to oil paint, as opposed to, say, gouache or watercolour. One is its infinite workability and since I take ages, it’s the only coloured material that I can think of that’s infinitely workable’. In the same interview he discussed his palette of earth tones which was typical of his Building Site series: ‘For the first years, say from 1952 to 1958, I could really only afford to work in the way that I did, which was to make a thing again and again and again, by using earth colours and black and white. (I still work in this way but can now sometimes afford other colours.) … It may have been that the reiteration of the effort and the fact that I could afford so little material played some small part in the look, the thickness of the paint’.

Pigment analysis has identified iron oxide, carbon black and chrome yellow pigments. Chalk (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and barium sulphate are present as extenders. These are commonly included in manufactured tube paint to bulk out the paint. Zinc soaps have also been identified in some of the paints which may have been added by the manufacturer of the tube paints used as a rheology modifier (to adjust the flow behaviour of paint, e.g. its viscosity) and/or as a paint drier.

The painting is in good condition, however some areas remain soft and tacky, which indicates that the paint is not yet fully dry. This relates to the thickness of the paint. Conversely, in some areas of impasto the paint is brittle and vulnerable to cracking. The painting is also water-sensitive. Water sensitivity is often observed in unvarnished twentieth century oil painting and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paint project). The painting is displayed glazed which helps to protect the surface of the painting. Auerbach has also expressed a preference for his works to be glazed.

Further reading
Catherine Lampert, ‘Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting’, London, 2015.
Timothy James Clark and Catherine Lampert, ‘Frank Auerbach’, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2015.

Judith Lee and Lucia Bay
July 2016

Research on this work was undertaken as part of the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project.

Catalogue entry

Not inscribed.
Oil on hardboard, 78×60 1/2 (198×154).
Purchased from the Beaux Arts Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1961.
Exh: Beaux Arts Gallery, April–May 1961 (8, repr.).

The above-mentioned exhibition included three small oil sketches of the building site (Nos.5, 6 and 7) as well as another large picture purchased for Melbourne (No.9). The artist wrote (30 May 1961): ‘The drawings from which the painting was started were made from above a building site which stretched from Oxford Street to Cavendish Square, but I cannot be certain whether it formed the foundation of the John Lewis extension or of the building next to it. I also made, at some point, drawings from a model for the figures. “Oxford Street Building Site II” (purchased by the Felton Bequest) was started before the picture purchased by the Tate in spring 1959, but finished after it, in December 1960. The Tate picture was, I think, started about September 1959 and finished towards the end of November 1960.’ See T00451.

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