Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff: brothers in paint

Alastair Smart explores a connection between the two School of London artists who influenced — and painted — one another for more than 70 years. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Left: Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), Head of Frank Auerbach, 1956. Right: Leon Kossoff at his studio, 1972

Left: Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), Head of Frank Auerbach, 1956. Oil on board. 7½ x 6 in (19 x 15.3 cm). Sold for £125,000 on 1 March 2021 at Christie’s in London. Right: Leon Kossoff at his studio, 1972. Photo: © Mark Gerson Photography / Bridgeman Images. Artworks: © Leon Kossoff Estate

To help pay his way through art school, Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) took a job alongside his classmate, Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), in the latter’s family bakery in the East End of London. Auerbach would serve on one counter, selling bread; Kossoff on the other, selling cakes.

In time, the pair would leave the bakery behind and develop long, successful careers as artists, careers that are frequently considered in parallel. Auerbach himself claimed they ‘were like two mountain climbers roped together’.

Both would spend the entire second half of the 20th century (and the very start of the 21st) creating figurative paintings — portraits and cityscapes, above all. For much of that time, other styles and media such as abstraction, Pop and conceptual art were deemed more fashionable — yet the pair persevered regardless.

Auerbach represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1986, Kossoff in 1995. Not that either of them had British heritage.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Reclining Figure I, 1965. Oil on paper laid down on board. 30⅞ x 22⅜ in (78.5 x 56.8 cm). Sold for £529,200 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s in London

Born in Berlin to a bourgeois Jewish family (his father was a lawyer), Auerbach was eight when his parents sent him to England in 1939, benefiting from a Quaker scheme to send Jewish children to safety. He enrolled at a boarding school in Kent and never saw his parents — who were killed by the Nazis — again.

Kossoff was Jewish too, born and raised in London to Ukrainian parents who had fled anti-Semitic pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Following military service abroad, Kossoff returned in 1948 to study at Saint Martin’s School of Art, where he first met Auerbach, who had recently arrived from Kent.

They soon formed a close and collaborative relationship, often visiting the bomb sites and building sites of post-war London together in search of artistic inspiration.

Both also grew disenchanted by the rigid, academic teaching at Saint Martin’s. ‘Leon and I were perhaps a bit rougher… than the other students,’ Auerbach recalled in 1990. ‘We wanted something… not so linear and illustrative.’

‘I would sit for an hour and Leon would paint me, and then Leon would sit for an hour and I’d paint him. And so we went on all day, turn and turn about’ — Frank Auerbach

Attending supplementary evening classes at Borough Polytechnic, they found what they were looking for. Their teacher there was David Bomberg, previously one of the leading artists associated with the Vorticist movement of 1914-15.

Both spoke glowingly of his classes, Auerbach referring to them as ‘extremely stimulating’, Kossoff as ‘like coming home’. Bomberg encouraged students to pursue an immediate, instinctive approach to painting, in which they conveyed the experience  rather than simply the look  of forms. The idea, in Bomberg’s much-repeated phrase, was to draw out ‘the spirit in the mass’.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Head of Leon Kossoff, 1954. Oil on panel. 24 x 22 in (61 x 55.8 cm). Sold for £2,658,500 on 30 June 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © The Artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects Ltd

When not in classes — or the bakery — Kossoff and Auerbach were frequently in each other’s studios drawing or painting one another. (The studio in Camden that Auerbach still works in today actually belonged first to Kossoff, who gave it up to him in 1954.)

There are eight recorded oil portraits of Kossoff by Auerbach and three of Auerbach by Kossoff — all of them painted in the 1950s.

As the younger of the pair recalled in 2015, ‘I would sit for an hour and Leon would paint me, and then Leon would sit for an hour and I’d paint him. And so we went on all day, turn and turn about… I’ve forgotten how many days a week we did it, maybe two. It may have taken about two years for Leon to finish two paintings of me… and [the same] for me to finish two paintings of Leon.’

One might do well not to take Auerbach’s timings literally, but they do give a sense of the perfectionism for which he and Kossoff are renowned. Each artist had a habit of applying and then scraping away innumerable layers of paint in the creation of a single work — until, finally, he was satisfied with the result. Often those results have surfaces so thickly encrusted they recall the icing on a cake.

Frank Auerbach in the studio circa 1955, with Head of Leon Kossoff, 1954

Frank Auerbach in the studio circa 1955, with Head of Leon Kossoff (1954). Photo and artworks: © The Artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects Ltd

In a sense, their every painting is a palimpsest of the many images and layers that built up to it. In the case of the cityscapes, this reflected the upheavals in an ever-changing London; in the portraits, it reflected the multi-faceted character of each sitter. Auerbach and Kossoff captured an essence rather than an exactness.

At times, this could veer a little towards abstraction, yet it elicited Bomberg’s ‘spirit in the mass’ at the same time.

Auerbach had his first solo show at Beaux Arts Gallery in Mayfair in 1956; Kossoff had his at the same venue a year later. In the early days, it’s notable that both used a relatively muted palette.

In part this was an aesthetic decision, inspired by artists such as Rembrandt, but it was also a practical one. Given the sheer amount of paint they used, they couldn’t really afford brighter, more expensive colours. Over the years, as increased success came their way, both painters adopted more vivid colouring.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Primrose Hill, 1978. Oil on panel. 45⅛ x 59⅞ in (114.6 x 152.2 cm). Sold for £2,442,000 on 13 October 2022 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © The Artist, courtesy Frankie Rossi Art Projects Ltd

Similarities between the pair can seem endless. Late in life, Kossoff turned down a CBE, for example, just as Auerbach did a knighthood. Differences did obviously exist, however. Where Kossoff always preferred to work on board, Auerbach frequently uses canvas.

They’re also associated with different parts of London. Auerbach has focused on scenes around his Camden studio, including the parkland of Primrose Hill. Kossoff, by contrast, is best known for his depictions of Christ Church Spitalfields, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s stunning Baroque church near the artist’s childhood home in east London.

Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), A Street in Willesden, Summer 1983, 1983. Oil on board. 54 x 78 in (137.1 x 198.1 cm). Sold for £371,250 on 4 October 2019 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Leon Kossoff Estate

Kossoff also repeatedly captured the Willesden area of northwest London, where he moved in the 1960s — especially its many railways (trains, stations, junctions and bridges are common subjects).

Another difference is that figures have a more marked presence in Kossoff’s scenes, going about the bustle of their everyday lives. In Auerbach’s — in the words of Alistair Hicks in his book The School of London  — people are reduced to ‘windswept wisps’.

‘School of London’ was a term coined by R.B. Kitaj to refer to a group of figurative painters working in the British capital in the decades after the Second World War. Kitaj counted himself among them, alongside Auerbach, Kossoff, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Michael Andrews. In truth, though the six all knew each other, they would be better described as a loose affiliation rather than a school.

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The strongest connection by far was between Auerbach and Kossoff, who remained friends for seven decades, right up until the latter’s death in 2019, aged 92. Unlike some of their School of London peers, both maintained a quiet, unflashy dedication to their métier.

‘I end each day waiting for tomorrow when I can start working again,’ Kossoff once said.

Auerbach made a similar point in 2001, saying, ‘If I could, I’d do a bit of painting, put on a white linen suit and then have dinner at the Ritz. [But] I can’t do that… I think I might have finished something, and then look at it… and discover that it isn't finished at all.’

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