The subject of the railway, with its metaphorical allusions of departure and return and the momentary transformation of the landscape, has provided inspiration for numerous modern British poets, writers and artists. Just prior to the Second World War in 1934, Barbara Hepworth declared, in Unit One, her aspiration to translate her sensual experiences of the natural and man-made world into a new form of universal, abstract art. She described how, ‘In an electric train moving south I see a blue aeroplane between a ploughed field and a green field, pylons in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature. It is the relationship of these things that makes such loveliness…I want to project my feelings about it into sculpture – not words, not paint nor sound’. In the 1957 poem, The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin portrayed a very different mood, conjuring up a pithy and melancholy version of English provincial life, as seen from a train trundling from Hull to London.
Kossoff’s earliest drawings of Dalston Junction date from the early 1970s when he took an additional studio close to the station. For his 1981 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Kossoff provided the curators with a black and white photograph, showing the view from his studio window on which this drawing is based. (Fig.1) It was included in the accompanying catalogue and while Kossoff would not have used the photograph directly, it provides us with an insight into the specific details of the scene. The photo is taken looking down onto some industrial buildings which are next to a railway line. We can see a church to the right and a road bounds the bottom of the photograph from left to right. The exact point where the tracks go under the bridge is partly obscured by a large billboard. While here it is fixed, Kossoff’s various charcoals, gouaches and oils clearly show the image on the billboard changing from month to month, a pleasing image within the image over which Kossoff had no control.
Here Kossoff’s drawing is densely worked and there is an evident enjoyment taken in the cross-hatching he uses to build up tone and in creating lines which cross continuously from one side of the drawing to the other. The image of the railway line, and the possibility that a train will dash across the scene bisecting the drawing from top to bottom at any moment, creates an inherent tension which is not felt in other versions in which a train is pictured passing through. Kossoff’s studio would have been crammed with such drawings and the splatters of oil on the surface are most likely not meant for this drawing, but for an adjacent painting.
In a recent review by Iain Sinclair, the poet and critic describes encountering Kossoff’s drawings en masse in his studio, just prior to his recent exhibition London Landscapes, 2013-2014:
‘Silent, heavy doors, open on a line of dense and minatory charcoal drawings, linked like coal trucks, and arranged on the floor in provisional order…I was thrown off balance by the intense energy of these marks: the dashes, counter-strokes, over-reaching arcs, sweeps and surges; the structural skeletons lodged in each of these panels. And by how, taken together, and processed down the length of the room, they amounted to something more, a history of struggle and release in the form of a monumental graphic novel from a remembered and reconstituted place. Tension and rapture. Excavation and elevation. The numinous Kossoff drawings are an autobiography forged through engagement with the dirty particulars of place. He’s like a man coming back from long exile in order to make a map of locations where he can begin to search for himself, to confirm his existence…’
‘…Railways play a large part in the story. Railways as ladders of memory and as metalled rivers sliced by the branches of a cherry tree at the bottom of a Willesden Green garden…The railway drawings are epics of uninhabited spontenaeity, monochrome Turner seizures of elemental forces choked back by the broken ribs of cancelled strokes, weighed down under a curtain of solid smoke.’ 1
1. At Annely Juda, The London Review of Books, Volume 35, Number 11, 6 June 2013, p26