Leon Kossoff (British, born 1926) Nude on a Red Bed No. 3 1968 Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) Reclining Head of E.O.W. II 1969 Frank Auerbach (British, born 1931) Birth, Marriage, Death 1951 Leon Kossoff (British, born 1926) John Asleep 1987

Amid the rubble of the post-Blitz capital, a group of emigré artists rediscovered figuration. Alistair Hicks encounters the School of London

The term 'School of London' was invented by R.B. Kitaj in the foreword to a 1976 Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue. Kitaj's idea was to connect a few dozen artists then resident in the swinging capital who were painting in a primarily figurative way – when the world seemed to be in thrall to abstraction and conceptualism.

For years Francis Bacon had been showing, single-handedly, night after night in Soho and day after day in South Kensington, that it was possible to be a bohemian genius in London. Of Kitaj's original 35 painters, a hardcore group were caught up in Bacon's wake: Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, around whom Michael Andrews, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Kitaj himself seemed to circle.

There is a classic photograph of the group, gathered at Wheeler's, a Soho restaurant known to them as just 'the fish and chip shop'. That was in 1963, but Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Andrews were all there, ready for the photographer John Deakin to earn his commission. Bacon himself, as usual, had to buy the champagne and create the atmosphere.

But look closely: the champagne is still corked. The image was a confection for Vogue.

So what was the School of London? Figuration was key – as has been recognised at Tate Britain, whose All Too Human exhibition features Bacon, Freud and Auerbach. Apart from figuration, however, each of the School of London had very different visions of life in London.

In the 1950s, during their student days and for a short period afterwards, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff chimed together to give a harmonious if rather muddy brown view of post-Blitz Britain. They would go together to study and draw bombsites and building works. They both used a palette indebted to Rembrandt – and to the prohibitive cost of brighter colours. They both used large quantities of thick paint.

Yet each had a different relationship with London. Their city was a safe haven from persecution, but the experience was more raw for Auerbach. As the Nazis were beginning to dismantle the solid Jewish civilisation in Germany, he had been sent to safety, aged eight, to an experimental school in Kent. He would never see any of his close family again. Kossoff's parents, on the other hand, had left Russia before Leon was born and they were already establishing a successful network of bakeries across north London as he grew up. Critic Richard Cork made the perceptive observation that, when looking for locations to paint, Kossoff simply followed the routes of his parents' delivery vans. It is no surprise, then, that his buildings are solid, even monumental. Kossoff is creating icons of his city, the city that he lived in all his life.

Auerbach's London is more fragile – his buildings have a transitory aspect, his trees are little more than windswept wisps – and so are the people he meets in it. In Auerbach's work, there is constant battle between spontaneity and a desire for permanence. After every session he scrapes the paint off to start again fresh the next day.

As he put it, "I have had a thousand other sensations in the course of painting than the one I finally pin down", adding that "I don't regard the painting as finished till it is locked geometrically for me in a way I hadn't forseen." In a sense he was looking for a system that echoed Bacon's belief in the importance of the accidental, the random element that brings everything alive.

"Working on the streets was not what I had planned, but I realised years later that it had a certain symbolism. I had been through the war, we'd all survived. This must have in some way affected me and it seemed to be rather urgent that I try to pin this down."

The first person Auerbach really wanted to pin down was Stella, his first love. Auerbach's painting Reclining Head of E.O.W. II (1969) is offered by Bonhams in London's Post-War & Contemporary Art Sale in March. Stella appears as 'E.O.W.' (which stood for Estella Olive West) in several paintings, but this was painted towards the end of their relationship. It has an aura of tragedy that matches similar compositions by Gerhard Richter and Marlene Dumas. Has he pinned his emotions down?

No, but he has shown how such feelings wrack us and then slip away. That must have been appreciated by Lucian Freud, who once owned Reclining Head. By the time he died, Freud had more than 40 of his friend's works, going out of his way to promote Auerbach's career.

Indeed, there were genuine friendships within the School of London, although they never totally overcame Kitaj's neat summation of the group as "a herd of loners".

Kossoff was interested in similar subjects to Auerbach – witness his Nude on a Red Bed No.3 (1968), also on offer in March – and though the palette used and heavy paint again bear comparison to Auerbach, there is none of the shattering distance that Reclining Head interposes.

Apart from Kossoff, a born-and-bred Londoner, the School of London were all migrants of some sort or another – people for whom the city did not always provide the sanctuary and stimulation they sought.

Kitaj came here as a G.I. but, after the Second World War, decided to become an artist. At the Royal College, he met the much younger David Hockney, an emigré of a different order, having been born to "radical working class" parents (as Hockney himself described them) in Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

London was as much an adventure for him as it was for Kitaj. For both men, it was a social platform, a strange and never quite willing bedfellow, but while Kitaj left the city after 50 years, his heart broken by the death of his wife Sandra, Hockney continues to flit in between sojourns in the Californian sun and Yorkshire wolds.

After all, Hockney's sense of being an outsider ran deeper than mere geography. As he explained to my friend Robert Dalrymple: "I've been gay all my life, and I've smoked all my life. When I was young it was fine to smoke but it was illegal to be gay. Now it's fine to be gay but it'll be illegal to smoke. I've always been up against it."

Hockney really found his voice by the swimming pool in L.A., but even during the School of London days his colours could be more Californian than anything Kossoff or Auerbach attempted: his watercolour portrait of Ianthe Cornwall-Jones (1967) contrasts his subject's melancholy expression with the vivid green of the background.

The painters of the School of London all had very different lives, but – for a period – the city was their main stage. And what is remarkable is how they peopled that stage, searching as much to capture sensations of those who moved through London as to capture the city itself.

Few of the extraordinary portraits they produced were, however, quite as intense as that one small painting by Auerbach. It was not to be his final painting of E.O.W., whom he continued to painting into the 1970s. Yet, in retrospect, it reads like the mourning of a great loss – perhaps not just of love, but also of a particularly fertile period of creativity.

Alistair Hicks is author of The School of London (1989).

Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Wednesday 7 March at 5pm
Enquiries: Ralph Taylor +44 (0) 20 7447 7403

The exhibition All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is at Tate Britain from 28 February to 27 August 2018.

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