A group of London-based figurative painters of the second half of the 20th century including Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach.

Frank Auerbach Portrait of Gerda Boehm 1965 © FRANK AUERBACH, COURTESY MARLBOROUGH FINE ART

The School of London were a loosely affiliated group of Post-war artists who rejected Minimalist and Conceptual avant-garde styles in favour of representational subjects and painterly techniques. The most prominent artists associated with the term were Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, R.B. Kitaj and Leon Kossoff.

Origins of The School of London

In 1976, painter, writer and polemicist R.B. Kitaj organised the exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery in London. The title was an excerpt taken from the poet W H Auden’s poem Letter to Lord Byron, ‘To me Art’s subject is the human clay.’ The show brought together drawings and paintings by 48  participants and included a text by Kitaj in which he first referred loosely to the artists as the School of London. Though stylistically diverse, these artists chose to paint the people and places of the city around them with raw energy and angst, choosing to depict an urban landscape scarred by wartime bombing rather than following the contemporary art world fashions of abstraction, pop and conceptualism. One critic described them as, ‘sceptical of fashion and optimistic of the necessity for good old-fashioned moral and critical standards’.

Focus on the Figure

Although there was no unifying manifesto to unite them and many of them rejected the ‘School of London’ name, the most successful of the group exhibited together on numerous occasions, as well as sharing several social circles, frequenting the Soho artists bar and The Colony Room in London. Where Bacon’s figurative subjects were unsettling, surreal and distorted, such as Figure Study I, 1946, Freud increasingly relied on direct observations of light and space. In contrast, the thick brushstrokes and impasto paint deployed by Auerbach and Kossoff became one of the defining characteristics of the style, where paint took on an almost sculptural quality. Kitaj’s figurative paintings were often concerned with emotive, literary or political content, as demonstrated in If Not, Not, 1975-6. The touring exhibition organised by the British council, A School of London: Six Figurative Painters brought together work by Bacon, Kitaj, Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach and Andrews at the Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo in 1987, cementing the artists together as a recognisable group.

New Spirit in Painting, 1981

In the 1980s in London figurative painting experienced a surge of interest, spurred on by exhibitions including the Royal Academy’s New Spirit in Painting, 1981, a huge survey including works by Picasso, Auerbach, Freud and Hockney, preceding the Neo-Expressionist movement. While recognition was slow for many of the School of London artists, over the past few decades they have now been acknowledged for their contribution to what curator Elena Crippa calls a ‘richer and more complex understanding of the art and culture of the post-war period.’

Artists

Francis Bacon
1909 - 1992
Lucian Freud
1922 - 2011
Frank Auerbach
born 1931
Ronald Brooks Kitaj
1932 - 2007
Michael Andrews
1928 - 1995