Painting the Lines

Out of sequence of the history of Willesden, I am going to write about a famous painter who has painted the railway lines in Willesden Junction and at Willesden Green, many times – Leon Kossoff.

I had not heard about Kossoff until the weekend I went to the Literary festival in Kew and heard him mentioned by Iain Sinclair who I heard talk about his new book on his Over Ground railway walk.[London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line].

Sinclair mentioned in passing a painter who had painted Willesden Junction  many times, and also the ‘under’ the railways activity – the area we do not see when we look out of the window of the train. That which is under the railway and the train – and which uses their buildings – the Arches or the bridges or the waste areas by the side of the railways.

Under the Arches in London are many spaces which have been inhabited for years – since existence – by many industries or for other purposes including leisure: now railway arches have been converted into cinemas, climbing walls, bakeries and boxing clubs and skate parks and artists’ spaces and galleries too. Sinclair looks at them when he walks and Kossoff painted them.

RefurbishedArches skate park under the arches


Like Sinclair, Kossoff too looked out of the train window and also his studio window and painted what he saw. Sinclair filmed what he saw.

Kossoff was born in Islington in 1926 and is now therefore 88/9 and now finds it too taxing to paint.

He has spent his whole life in London apart from his time as an evacuee and during his military service. His home territory when growing up was the East End – Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and Hackney as was typical of the Jewish emigrants from the Ukraine. He had 6 siblings and his father was a baker.  Art was unknown in his family but he found his way to the National Gallery when 10 years old and started to ‘translate’ what he saw into his own versions.

Evacuated in 1939 to Kings Lynn he stayed with a family who encouraged his art and which led to him returning to London in 1943 to study art at St Martin’s and Toynbee Hall. After military service he also studied at Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg and met Frank Auerbach there. These 3 together formed what is loosely called the London School. They were joined by Lucien Freud, Keith Critchlow, and Francis Bacon.

Between 1963 and 1968 he had a studio in Willesden, near Willesden Junction and painted what he saw :

“Something happens when you see Willesden Junction stretching out in front of you. What else can you do but draw it?”

He also painted Kilburn Station for many years and painted what he saw in the swimming pool at Willesden where he took his son.

Willesden Junction, Morning in October 1971 Leon Kossoff born 1926 Lent from a private collection 2006
Willesden Junction, Morning in October 1971 Leon Kossoff born 1926 Lent from a private collection 2006

At the bottom of the garden of the family house in Willesden Green are railway lines – the Chiltern and the Jubilee and the Met lines pass by – from which, in the 1980s and 1990s, he drew the trains as they went past. Train lines, he says, “open out the landscape, somehow”. A recent subject has been a cherry tree in his garden, one of its lolling branches steadied with struts. Once, before the suburban houses were built, there was an orchard here. [And I shall write more about the landscape in Mapesbury and what was before in a later post]. cherry tree

Many of the landscapes in his drawings and paintings are now gone, which is why to look at them is to look through Kossoff’s eyes but also to travel into his past with him. Even the trains at the bottom of the garden look different now, trees have grown up to obscure the view and the area is considered a protected wildlife corridor for the urban wildlife to travel safely up and down the rail lines.

It’s a smutty place, Kossoff’s London, congested, seething, murky, messy, relentlessly itself, and usually rendered in a mixture of charcoal and pastel.

The colours were most often sombre – greys edging off to black. He has always loved architectural decrepitude, often seen from a fairly high view point: gantries; a gasometer ; the demolition site; conventionally unlovely industrial locations; places between places; grubby edgelands like Iain Sinclair talked about – the passed by, the unloved, the areas where our transient population can linger and not be noticed.

These are the interesting places that are changing as London finding itself short of spaces looks for more, and finds them crowded up against the railway lines (see the new flats at West Hampstead) or underneath and even attempts (I remember it well – the Tesco store over the railway line at Gerrard’s Cross, as I was living near there then, that collapsed initially, but has since been rebuilt and opened in 2010) to build over the railways. The railways change the scenery of London constantly and are the driver of change in many ways. Here we can celebrate an artist who has captured the railways as they were before London’s need for space transformed them. kossoff photo

I have taken as my sources a number of articles about Kossoff:

  1. Wikipedia and Leon Kossoff
  2. Independent article on Kossoff
  3. Guardian article on Kossoff
  4. Studio Independent article on Kossoff
  5. Plus pictures taken from the articles and the Tate Gallery.

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