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So Long, Leon Kossoff

July 8, 2019
by the gentle author

Today we remember Leon Kossoff (1926-2019) who died on Thursday 4th July aged ninety-two. He was one of the few artists from the East End to win an international reputation.

Presiding over Spitalfields for three hundred years, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Commercial Street is the East End’s most enduring landmark and it has caught the imagination of many artists. Yet perhaps Leon Kossoff captured its awe-inspiring scale more effectively than anyone else in a recurrent series of paintings and drawings executed over the past half century.

Born just half a mile up the road in Shoreditch, Leon grew up on the Boundary Estate where his family ran a bakery. At the age of nine, a trip to the National Gallery inspired him with a love of painting which was to become the consuming passion of a lifetime. When his school was evacuated to Norfolk in 1939, Leon had the good fortune to stay with the Bishop family in Kings Lynn who encouraged his interest in art, which led him to make his first paintings and, on his return to London in 1943, he enrolled for art classes at Toynbee Hall.

Even before he ever drew it, Christ Church was a landmark on Leon’s landscape, both culturally and literally. Built with the proceeds of a coal tax in the early eighteenth century, Christ Church was constructed as an emblem of power to impress the Huguenot immigrants of Spitalfields and encourage their conversion to Anglicanism. Its overbearing scale makes the onlooker feel small, yet equally it offers the converse experience to those leaving the church, to whom, elevated upon the steps of the portico, the world appears spread out below. For the child of first generation immigrants, such as Leon, the building was a constant reminder of his place in the continuum of successive waves of immigration which have come to define the East End.

Leon first drew Christ Church in the fifties when he was living in Bethnal Green and the building was derelict, returning to the subject again in the seventies when it was under threat of demolition. But it was not until the eighties, when he had moved from the East End to Willesden, that he undertook drawings which became the basis for his series of paintings of this monumental subject beginning in 1987.

His densely wrought paintings embody both the complex emotionalism of Leon’s personal response to everything that Christ Church represents and the struggle of the onlooker to contain such titanic architecture.

“In the dusty sunlight of this August day, when this part of London still looks and feels like the London of William Blake’s Jerusalem, I find myself involved 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 pressures of the accumulation of memories and the unique quality of the subject on this particular day but also with the awareness that time is 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.” Leon Kossoff, March 1989

After serving in the Second World War, Leon studied commercial art at St Martin’s and then painting at the Royal College of Art. Despite winning international acclaim for his work in recent decades, Leon Kossoff remained a modest, reclusive figure and he returned to Arnold Circus and the Boundary Estate in his final years undertaking a series of affectionate, intimate drawings of the urban landscape of his childhood.

Christ Church

Saturday afternoon at Arnold Circus

Images copyright © Estate of Leon Kossoff

Reproduced courtesy of Annely Juda Gallery, London


7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2019

    sigh… the end of an era. Leon Kossoff was our direct connection to David Bomberg, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.

  2. Helen Breen permalink
    July 8, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great story of Leon Kossoff, his life, work, and return to the scenes of his childhood in Spitalfields.

    Christ Church is such an imposing structure. The artist expressed his fascination with his subject very well:

    “The urgency that drives me to work is not only to do with the pressures of the accumulation of memories and the unique quality of the subject on this particular day but also with the awareness that time is 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.” Leon Kossoff, March 1989

  3. July 8, 2019

    So long, Mr Leon Kossoff (1926-2019) — R.I.P:

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. Nicholas permalink
    July 8, 2019

    He leaves us a body of work which has strength of vision few are able to equal.

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 8, 2019

    Not many of us that reach such an age are able to leave such a lasting visual legacy. rip talented man

  6. July 10, 2019

    So sorry to read about the passing of Leon Kossoff.

    I write as a 95 year old, who lived as a child in Boreham Street and was very friendly with Leon’s brother Hymie in the 1920′s. We all used to meet up at the family baker’s shop in Peter’s Street just off Brick Lane and I have fond memories of those times.

    I offer my condolences to Leon’s family and indeed all the Kossoff’s.

    Best regards

    Ron Goldstein

  7. July 11, 2019

    How fascinating to hear his family history and the responses to his passing.
    Leon Kossoff was a true poet. God rest him.
    Eleanor Bowen

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