Leon Kossoff

The Flower and Fruit Stalls, Embankment 1995


Not on display

Leon Kossoff 1926 – 2019
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 1828 × 2031 mm
frame: 1957 × 2154 × 67 mm
Purchased 1997


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).

Further reading
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.

Jo Kear
May 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on the textured side of a single sheet of 3 mm thick hardboard, which is pinned and glued (with a PVA wood glue) to a softwood batten frame behind it. The batten frame consists of four outer members, which are butt joined at their corners, one horizontal cross-member and three vertical cross-members. At each batten intersection, an additional piece of hardboard has been glued behind the joint presumably as a further reinforcement. These hardboard pieces are squares (with sides of 180 mm) on the three cross over points between vertical and horizontal members, whereas at all the outer joints the squares have been cut in half to form triangular pieces. Once the support had been constructed, a very dilute and only slightly pigmented size layer was applied over the front of the hardboard panel and also on its back in the areas between the wooden batten frame. The nature of this coating is not known, but it has the appearance of an animal glue with a tiny amount of chalk added. Although essentially white in colour, it is very transparent due to the very low solid content, and the coating subsequently takes on much of the hardboard colour beneath it.

The paint was then applied to the primed panel. The whole of the panel front appears to have been first covered with a layer of white oil paint before the other colours were applied over this. This has a reasonable thickness, but the surface texture of the hardboard would still have been evident through it; it is still visible in areas where this layer shows between the thicker and subsequent paint layers. The paint used for the upper layers is vehicular and paste-like in consistency, and was probably used straight from the tube, although a few areas may have had a little additional oil medium added to them. The paint was applied predominantly by brush, although the surface topography of a few areas is completely flat which is indicative of the occasional use of a palette knife. The paint has been built up in many layers, mostly with opaque colours, all of which have a reasonably high gloss. However, since the technique used was very much a wet-in-wet style these layers are often blended and subsequently not completely distinct from each other. Nevertheless, the overall paint thickness is characteristically very thick, with the highest points of impasto remaining some 7 mm above the support. For such a thickly painted work the paint is showing remarkably few drying defects, with just the occasional area of slight wrinkling in some of the thicker regions. The thin strings of paint which lie over much of the painting (although some lie beneath the final brushstrokes) are of two sorts. One sort originates from areas of high impasto, where the paint appears to have been pulled up and then over by the brush so that the string lies across the painting but is still connected to the impasto. The other kind appears completely independent of impasto and would have been formed by using a brush loaded with paint which had started to run and rapidly moving it over the surface of the painting.

The frame is original to the work and consists of a painted L-section construction. The frame itself is made from a softwood and it is screwed to an MDF rear section, which in turn is screwed to the wooden battens on the rear of the painting. The front face of the frame is a grey colour, whereas all the inner sections and the outside are a much lighter and bluer grey, which has been applied as a thin scumble. The painting is in an excellent condition. The hardboard support is providing sound support for the paint layers, which show no sign of cracking or other form of deterioration. Providing it is kept in the appropriate environmental conditions, there is no reason why the work should not remain in this pristine state for a considerable period of time.

Tom Learner
October 1997

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