'This part of London is my world. 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' (F. Auerbach, quoted in C. Lampert, N. Rosenthal & I. Carlisle (ed.), Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, exh. cat., London, 2001, p. 15).
Primrose Hill is an important early landscape by Frank Auerbach which shows one of his favourite themes: London. Since his time as an art student in London, Auerbach has seldom left the city, and continues to paint the landscape of his surroundings in Camden, Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill. Painted in 1954, this picture ranks among the early masterpieces in which Auerbach consolidated his incredible idiosyncratic style, creating this landscape through an incredible accumulation of paint which combines to create a vivid, tangible, palpable and almost organic vision of Primrose Hill which conveys more than just its appearance: it gives a jolt of recognition. Auerbach's celebrated early landscapes, which were the subject of an acclaimed exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London last year, present the British capital in a vivid, deliberately pulpy manner that conveys the substantiality of the artists surroundings through the very substantiality of the surface. Here, through the organic ochres that fill so much of Primrose Hill, various textures and forms can be perceived, inlaid and incised within the mass of paint, arranged in planes and lines of different colours and tones, conveying a sense of the space and structure of the area. Gradually, Primrose Hill emerges from this magma through the structure of the surface.
Looking at the recently-published catalogue raisonné of Auerbach's works, it becomes all the more clear that this picture dates from the crucial stage in which the artist had the epiphanies that resulted in his unique style. E.O.W. Nude, which he has described as the great turning point and which is now in Tate, London, dated from 1953-54. It was in 1954 that Auerbach moved into the Camden studio formerly used by his friend and fellow artist, Leon Kossoff. Auerbach soon began recording the local landscape, showing nearby Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill.
Auerbach's studio was to become a legendary place because of the incredible accumulation of spongy paint that covered the floor because of the working techniques he would later develop, where he scraped the former appearance of each state of the painting away before beginning afresh. During the earlier period of Primrose Hill, though, the paint was left to create archeological strata, gradually building up to an incredible thickness. Writing about these paintings, Robert Hughes recalled that when the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia bought another of Auerbachs great early landscapes, Oxford Street Building Site II of 1959-61, 'Nobody who saw it then had ever imagined that such a thick surface could be made out of oil-paint. At night, rumour said, the Auerbach crept' (R. Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London, 1990, p. 82). Hughes pointed out that, 'None of this art-student folklore turned out to be true'; nonetheless it conveys the incredible sense of substance and texture of early landscapes such as Primrose Hill.