Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Frank Auerbach
B. 1931
titled and dated 1989-90 on the stretcher
oil on canvas
135 by 112 cm. 53 1/6 by 44 in.
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Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1991


William Feaver, Frank Auerbach, New York 2009, p. 311, no. 646, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Arrestingly articulated in a magnificent confluence of vibrant hues and a striking topography of oil paint, Mornington Crescent – First Light is a sublime example of the landscapes for which Frank Auerbach is celebrated as one of the greatest British painters working today. Capturing the peaceful luminescence of early morning breaking over the metropolis, this work dramatically reveals the urban landscape in an extraordinarily intimate way, providing physical testament to the artist’s statement that: “This part of London is my world. I’ve been wandering around these streets for so long that I have become attached to them, and as fond of them as people are of their pets” (Frank Auerbach cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Frank Auerbach Paintings and Drawings 1954-2001, 2001, p. 15). It is central to a grand cycle of works that depict this archetypal vista of Auerbach’s London, from which comparable examples are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Mornington Crescent, 1967); the Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebaek (Mornington Crescent, Early Morning, 1999); and The London Jewish Museum (Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II, 2004).

Close to the Camden studio he has worked in since taking it over from Leon Kossoff in 1954, the subject of Mornington Crescent has continued to fascinate Auerbach for over forty years. The capacious houses of the Crescent were originally constructed in the 1820s amid the fields of Camden just north of Central London, and the area has witnessed a storied cultural history: the painter Walter Sickert lived there and Charles Dickens attended a school nearby, while the street also boasts the great white edifice of the Camden Theatre that was built in 1900. In the present work, a tall chimney dramatically ascends into the sky; this totemic obelisk provides useful counterpoint to Auerbach’s composition as its leaning verticality punctuates the receding arc of the street.

While the exceptional palette of vivid colour injects the picture with an overpowering sense of warmth and vibrancy, the paint surface narrates the highly dramatic process of Auerbach’s facture. As is particularly redolent across the vast expanse of light blue sky, the spectator’s eye is invited to roam the multi-layered facets and crevices inherent to the slick encrusted landscape of paint: it is here that we read the history of the artist’s painterly assault. From the risk-laden strike of a palette-knife, to a brush skimming and merging ridges of material together, pigment and medium have been dragged, scuffed, and swiped throughout; resolving finally into a sensational and haptic unity. Cool blue melds with streaks of ochre and flashes of hot pink to create a painterly essay of extraordinary visual interest comparable to works by the greatest landscape painters in British art history. In its extraordinary evocation of the early morning light Mornington Crescent – First Light readily reminds us of the canonical oeuvres of J.M.W. Turner or William Constable.

Auerbach’s desire to emphasise the city’s “massive substance” and explore its condition of “fullness and perpetual motion” is manifest in a dogmatic working routine, which is tantamount to an ethical code (Frank Auerbach in conversation with Richard Cork, in: Robert Hughes, Frank Auerbach, London 1990, p. 83). Auerbach returns obsessively to the same views and sketches on the spot, before working each view up in the studio for extended periods of strenuous effort. By repeatedly applying paint in rich thick layers before stripping away, paring back, and starting again, he digs deeper and deeper into the essence of each of his beloved subjects. In this way, his method is reminiscent of the cityscapes of Claude Monet, who time and again returned to certain subjects like the Cathedral at Rouen. However, unlike the Impressionists, Auerbach was unconcerned by capturing a specific atmospheric effect, and more preoccupied with trying to fix in material the experience of urban reality. Morning Crescent – First Light recounts an individual experience of a specific place, and responds to the city as a living, breathing, and ever-changing organism. As outlined by the writer and civic historian Peter Ackroyd: “Auerbach’s artistic activity is a simulacrum of the city’s life, with his incessant revisions and accretions, with his scraping down the surface of the board or canvas to make a fresh start” (Peter Ackroyd in: Exh. Cat., New York, Marlborough Gallery, Frank Auerbach: Recent Works, 1994, n.p.). Mornington Crescent – First Light is rooted in more than mere representation. In the powerful depictive hands of Frank Auerbach, it becomes a gloriously tactile, consummately engaging, and profoundly affecting entity in its own right.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction