Leon Kossoff

Christ Church, Spitalfields, Morning


Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Oil paint on board
Support: 1986 × 1892 mm
frame: 2107 × 2007 × 80 mm
Purchased 1994


This is one of a series of paintings of the same subject which Kossoff began in 1987. Christ Church, Spitalfields, London E1 was built in 1723-9 on what is now the edge of the City. The architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) was responsible for six Georgian Baroque churches erected in London during the first part of the eighteenth century. Surrounded by rows of brick terraces built by Huguenot settlers in the area, the church is faced in white Portland stone. A flight of steps leads up to the Palladian portico and entrance flanked by massive Tuscan columns. These support an arch, above which the tower and spire soar upwards dramatically. The body of the church consists of a monumental rectangular block which extends backwards for a considerable distance. The weighty and imposing structure of the church body, coupled with the extreme height of its steeple, result in a compositional challenge. Kossoff initially tackled this with a square format. In his earliest paintings of the church, the columns and portico dominate the image while its tower is severely foreshortened and the spire disappears off the canvas. In another version of 1989 the church is crammed diagonally across the canvas. Tate’s version, similarly, depicts the church leaning to the right. On the left side of the painting the edge of a row of houses is roughly indicated. Lamps stick out into the street above a pedestrian in the foreground. Two other figures in front of the church railings and a profusion of leafy green from a tree contribute to an atmosphere of vibrant life. Kossoff has explained his motivation for painting the church:

The urgency that drives me to work is not only to do with the pressures of the accumulation of memories and the unique quality of the subject on this particular day but also with the awareness that time is short, that soon the mass of this building will be dwarfed by more looming office blocks and overshadowed, the character of the building will be lost forever, for it is by its monumental flight into unimpeded space that we remember this building.

(Quoted in Moorhouse, p.33.)

Of Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, Kossoff was born in north London and spent his early years in Spitalfields and nearby Bethnal Green. Changes in the urban landscape, the result of construction work or more naturally, fluctuations in the weather and seasons, are a central theme in his work. In the 1950s he began painting building sites in various areas of London, including the City and the West End. Railway landscapes in areas familiar to the artist such as Kings Cross, Camden Town, Willesden and Dalston have been painted repeatedly in changing light. Local swimming pools filled with children and more recently, the crowds thronging the entrance of an underground station, have also featured. Portraits and nudes have provided a complementary contrast to architectural and street scenes. Kossoff was significantly influenced by David Bomberg (1890-1957), who taught him briefly in the early 1950s, famously advocating a quest for ‘the spirit in the mass’ (Moorhouse p.12). This calls for representation of the tactile sense of the subject rather than a visually accurate depiction, uniting a deep emotional response with an exploration of the qualities of materials over and above the accuracy of an image. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Kossoff developed a method of working with paint in some ways similar to that practised by Frank Auerbach (born 1931), his close friend. Both produce paintings in which the solid materiality of the paint is emphasised. While Auerbach frequently works on canvas, Kossoff always works on board and scrapes the paint off with a knife before reapplying it. The thick mass of paint smothering each board and extending over its edges is the result of a few hours energetic and concentrated work. The painting may be worked on over several months, but what is visible, the final state, is accomplished very quickly. Brushstrokes appear expressively gouged into a moist, living bed of paint rather than being applied cleanly onto a hard surface. Colours blend and marbleise with the stroke of the brush in an orgiastic celebration of the sensuality of matter which, at times, pushes the image to the extreme limits of being recognisable. Threads of thick oily paint are allowed to streak over already richly textured surfaces adding to their tactility and emphasising their material nature. Finally, Kossoff stops work on a landscape painting ‘when I can’t go on or when the painting begins to look like the drawing made on that day or when the image opens up a dialogue with the possibility of starting another version’ (quoted in Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, p.18).

Kossoff usually makes a charcoal study on site in preparation for the painting he will then make in the studio. Christ Church, Spitalfields 1990 (Tate T06771) is the preparatory drawing for this painting.

Further reading:
Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.34, reproduced (colour) p.149 pl.82
Leon Kossoff: Recent Paintings, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, XLVI Venice Biennale, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1995, pp.18-19, reproduced (colour) p.57
Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and Mitchell-Innes and Nash, New York 2000

Elizabeth Manchester
February 2003

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Display caption

Kossoff was born and studied in London, and now works here. 'Ever since the age of twelve I have drawn and painted London. I have worked from Bethnal Green, the City, Willesden Junction, York Way and Dalston.' Kossoff chooses to paint bomb sites, excavations, railway stations and their booking halls, and indoor swimming pools, subjects that give a strong flavour of the experience of everyday urban existence. He has painted a series of pictures on the subject of the grand city church, Christchurch, Spitalfields, by the architect Hawksmoor, and this painting focuses on the relationship between the diminutive figures in the street and the looming presence of the church.

Gallery label, September 2004

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