Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Thames and Hudson, New York / Tate Gallery, London, 1996, fig 46, illus b/w p34
Leon Kossoff would have been familiar with this London landmark since early childhood. His parents moved from the Ukraine around 1906-7 and settled first in Islington, where Kossoff was born, and then Shoreditch. The topography of the East End in which Kossoff grew up, runs throughout his work and the historic building of Christ Church on Commercial Street occupies a significant place in the artist’s working practice. Kossoff first drew the building in the 1950s when it was still semi-derelict and returned to the subject in the 1970s when it came under the threat of demolition. However, it was not until the 1980s that he began a series of drawings that would lead onto paintings.
The present work was created in 1985 and is one of the first examples from this new series. Kossoff returned to the subject after reading Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, prompting in the artist a renewed engagement with the subject, which would last for the next two decades.
Christ Church is a grand Baroque building built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1723-9. Viewed from street level it appears to rise from the ground and dominate the London skyline with a great vitality and majesty. The artist, quoted in 1989, reveals an emotional and personal motive behind his depictions of Christ Church in which he attempts to immortalize and capture the history and life of the building around it. Christ Church opens up the artist’s dialogue with both past and present, in its monumentality it appears timeless and this is something that Kossoff wants to protect. Yet his images remain equally concerned with depicting the essence of the contemporary life before him. As Kossoff comments,
‘In the dusty sunlight of this August day, when this part of London still looks and feels like the London of Blake’s Jerusalem, I find myself involved once again in making drawings and the idea of a painting begins to emerge. The urgency that drives me to work is not only to do with the pressure of the accumulation of memories and the unique quality of the subject on this particular day but also with the awareness that time is so short that soon the mass of this building will be dwarfed by more looming office blocks and overshadowed, the character of the building will be lost forever, for it is by its monumental flight into unimpeded space that we remember this building.’ (Richard Cork, Leon Kossoff, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1996, p.33)
Speaking more recently in an interview with Jon Snow and Nicholas Cass, the artist reveals how this motif also allowed him to explore what he believed was the very essence of painting,
‘It seems to move into space like a great monument. When you look at the Christ Church a whole new world of space is opening up. You experience space and light that you hadn’t before, that is what painting is all about. Space and light occupied by human presence.’ (Leon Kossoff interview with Nicholas Cass and Jon Snow, Channel Four News, 2007).
Here the essentially humanistic approach of the artist can still be traced in Kossoff’s perception of Christ Church, yet he also explores the motif as a means by which to experience space and light and as a means by which to achieve the essential purpose of painting.
This drawing is a wonderful example of Kossoff’s earliest depictions of Christ Church in which the church dominates most of the picture plane. Viewed from such a close range the spire has been cut off and the main body of the church looms before us, and towers above us, with a majestic force. Kossoff’s assertion that the church ‘moves into space’ is revealed in this drawing. The whole image is characterized by a sense of movement and energy and the Church grows upwards and out, filling the whole of the sheet of paper. Pencil strokes are quick and frenetic and the image of the drawing is worked and reworked in a succession of impulsive marks.
Unlike in other drawings which contain just the church, we can decipher at the bottom of the page the energized action of a group of people passing by on their daily rounds of city life. These figures, like the church, appear to be controlled by some force of energy that pushes them across the scene. Their horizontal movement counteracts the vertical force of the building. As Cork comments with these figures,
‘We are returned to street level and made aware of the mass and weight of the building, its rootedness in earth, and the lively flow of human life around it.’ (Cork, p.34).
Here then we have the essentials of Kossoff’s quest in art, the desire to articulate ‘space and light occupied by human presence.’