Rendered with rich swathes of dense and lustrous oil paint, Frank Auerbach’s Study for Tree on Primrose Hill presents a dynamic, vigorous and immediate impression of one of the artist’s favourite and most frequently depicted motifs: the park at Primrose Hill. Beneath a sky that has been set ablaze with streaks of vibrant orange and soft blue, an angular tree soars upwards in the foreground of the painting, slicing the landscape behind in two in this dramatic and energy-filled composition. Rising off the canvas in sumptuous sweeps of richly coloured paint, this image not only captures a fleeting moment of nature, but, with its frenzied topography of tactile peaks and ridges, it evokes the vivid sensation of standing within this wind-swept winter landscape. One of the finest and most dramatic of an important series of works to depict this dramatic composition – two of which belonged in the personal collection of Lucian Freud – Study for Tree on Primrose Hill reflects the profound connection and the deep, intimate knowledge that Auerbach had with his beloved London. Like Constable’s Suffolk, Monet’s Giverny or Van Gogh’s Arles, Auerbach has made a corner of north London – the immediate area surrounding his studio in Mornington Crescent – entirely his own, creating unique and highly distinctive paintings such as Study for Tree on Primrose Hill, that resonate with an intimate and profound intensity. Painted in 1986, Study for Tree on Primrose Hill dates from an important year in Auerbach’s career, during which he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, winning the hugely coveted Golden Lion prize along with Sigmar Polke. Study for Tree on Primrose Hill was originally in the renowned collection of Miss Valerie Beston. A gallerist and loyal and devoted supporter of the ‘London School’ of artists, including Auerbach, Freud and perhaps most notably, Francis Bacon, Miss Beston amassed a large and highly personal collection of paintings, many of which were given to her as gifts from these artists.
Auerbach first began to depict his beloved Primrose Hill, a quiet rural sanctum in the middle of the bustling urban metropolis, in the late 1960s. From this point onwards, this part of London has become central to the artist’s work, providing endless inspiration. ‘This part of London is my world’, he explained, ‘I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle, eds., Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., London, 2001, p. 15). Setting out at dawn, Auerbach went to the park at Primrose Hill and made rough sketches of the landscape: rapidly rendered charcoal or felt-pen drawings of trees, clouds, vistas or horizons. On his return to the studio, Auerbach used these sketches not as exact studies or plans for his paintings, but instead as impressions of the atmosphere; records of his experience of the landscape in front of him. Not completed en plein air, Auerbach’s process enables him to conflate his memory and experience of the landscape in his own time, capturing ‘what it was like to actually draw there that morning…what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That’s what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing…I’m looking at black and white drawings and the lines signal colours to me’ (Auerbach, quoted in R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 166).
Like Constable’s large and evocative depictions of the landscape, Auerbach’s paintings capture fleeting and ephemeral moments in time, yet these scenes are monumentalised, meticulously worked up by the artist to create an image of permanence and durability. In this way, Auerbach’s landscapes belong in the great heritage of European landscape painting, but, with their powerful portrayals of London, these works occupy a particular place within this lineage: as Auerbach has observed, ‘I have a strong sense that London hasn’t been properly painted. New York has been – think of Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge, or O’Keeffe’s Shelton with Sunspots. Paris has been painted to the last detail. But London? Monet on the Thames, Derain at the docks; bits and pieces, rather spottily, by Whistler and Sickert. But it has always cried out to be painted, and not been’ (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 84).
Featuring one angular, striking hawthorn tree in the foreground, which Auerbach has described as, ‘a tree that shoulders the cloud ceiling’ (Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting, London, 2015, p. 172), the dramatic composition of Study for Tree on Primrose Hill is evidence of a rare trip that the artist made outside London in 1975. Following a visit to Tretire in Herefordshire, Auerbach’s depictions of Primrose Hill changed. Here, the artist was captivated by a tree outside his bedroom window, and as a result, when he returned to his depictions of London, the motif of a singular tree became increasingly prominent. Though Auerbach cannot recall why he chose this particular tree on Primrose Hill, he remembered that he was aiming to capture the ‘feeling of the branch shaking in the wind’ (Auerbach, quoted in ibid., p. 176), and integrate this into the rhythm of zigzagging strokes and vigorous impasto of the painting.