Leon Kossoff was born in 1926 in London to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, the only member of the ‘School of London’ painters with whom he came to be associated – Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj, Michael Andrews – to be actually born in London. Kossoff studied first at the Royal College of Art and then St Martin’s College of Art but his most important training was evening classes under the tutelage of David Bomberg and alongside Frank Auerbach at the Borough Polytechnic. 'What David did for me,' Kossoff later recalled, 'which was more important than any technique he could have taught me, was he made me feel I could do it. I came to him with no belief in myself whatsoever and he treated my work with respect.’ (Leon Kossoff quoted in Paul Moorhouse, Leon Kossoff, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1996, p.12). Throughout his career, three subjects have dominated Kossoff's output: scenes of London, nudes and portraits, primarily of a familiar and select group of models known to him. Though the materiality of paint itself has such presence in his paintings, drawings are of absolute centrality to his practice, similar to the work of both Bomberg and Auerbach, undertaken every day either out in the city, in front of Old Master paintings, or in the studio with sitters, as with the present work, Young Man Seated, of John Lessore. Primarily using charcoal and coloured chalks, Kossoff’s draughtsmanship is impassioned and intense, even frenetic, as if attempting to capture every fleeting detail. Such scrutiny serves to develop and refine subjects: drawings and paintings are the product of extensive enquiry and exertion.
John Lessore has been a model for Kossoff since the late 1950s, a frequent subject in Kossoff’s paintings and drawings. A painter himself, John Lessore descends from a distinguished family lineage of artists and patrons, the nephew of Walter Sickert (Kossoff's first studio had once been Sickert's) and the son of Helen Lessore, doyenne of the Beaux Arts Gallery, indelibly associated with championing young British artists including the ‘School of London’ painters. Though Kossoff has drawn and painted Lessore innumerable times, each sitting is approached anew and afresh, with an openness to the varied emotions, atmosphere and conditions of each encounter in the studio between artist and model.
This particular iteration from 1961 was one of just three large drawings made ahead of the painting, Man in a Wheelchair, of the same year, in the collection of the Tate. Similar in composition to the Tate painting, though a mirror-reflection, the present work is a full-length charcoal depiction of John, very near life-size, its scale rendering it instantly impressive and immediate. In this study, Kossoff perfectly balances light and shadow: the black of the charcoal feels all the more intense for the judicious areas of unmarked paper. Whilst Lessore’s legs jut forward prominently, his face emerges slowly from the charcoal, supported by slightly hunched shoulders with his hands held in his lap. Pensive, subdued with head slightly bowed, perhaps this portrait of Lessore captures the pressures on the artist’s model, the long hours, the introspection and the enforced intimacy and proximity between artist and sitter. It is a profound and humane portrait, arresting in its specificity of a particular moment and simultaneously with the capacity to elicit a universal resonance.
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