© Frank Auerbach


Frank Auerbach (1931 – )


122.6 X 148.6
Accession number


Primrose Hill is a small park in north London whose paths culminate at a high point with a fine view over the city. It’s the local green spot for Frank Auerbach, who has been working in his nearby studio in Camden since the 1950s. He is intensely loyal to his subjects and comes here regularly to draw but does not come for the ‘view’. Auerbach, one of Britain’s greatest living artists, was among a wave of figurative painters in the 1980s that his friend R.B. Kitaj termed the ‘School of London’ – along with Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Michael Andrews, Francis Bacon and Euan Uglow. His artistic life is certainly London-centric. He attended St Martin's School of Art from 1947–52 and at the same time took evening classes at Borough Polytechnic with David Bomberg, one of the leading lights of the avant-garde in pre-1914 London and whose emphasis on the materiality of the painting’s surface had a profound influence on his young student. Bomberg got him drawing the epic changes going on in postwar London, as bombsites became building sites. Auerbach made his observations in sketchbooks on the spot, perched precariously wherever he could get a foothold, watching the shock of raw earth in the cavities and piles of rubble give way to toothpick scaffolding structures, from St Paul’s to South Bank and Oxford Street. These drawings became a series of monumental paintings, as deep in paint as they were entrenched in their subject.

                Auerbach is always ‘digging deeper’ (his phrase) and this sees him return again and again to the same subjects, always different – whether drawing from Titian, Poussin and Veronese in the National Gallery or making portraits of his close network of sitters, which require utmost dedication and punctuality. He works on landscape paintings in the studio, referring to scores of working drawings, keeping them on the go in between the arranged time for sitters to arrive and depart. He had been drawing in Primrose Hill regularly, in all seasons, weathers and times until the late 1970s when his focus shifted to the single tree and he has been loyal to the rooted subject as he is to human sitters. Tree on Primrose Hill, in the tradition of great paintings of single trees such as Constable’s Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree (c.1821) and Courbet's Le chêne de Flagey (1864) appears almost more like a portrait than a landscape painting. Where those example show upstanding tree trunks, Auerbach is drawn to an angular trunk, bending to the right, as if weathered by wind. The yellowish grass and brown-red upper reaches suggest that the setting is moving towards autumn but it isn’t useful to try to interpret the broad sections of colour and zigzagging brushstrokes figuratively. Strong angular marks create a space within the painting; the tree is paced around, sensed, living a different life on the canvas.