A River Runs Through It: London’s Ever-Shifting Art Tides

A River Runs Through It: London’s Ever-Shifting Art Tides

Artists and the city through the decades, from stalwarts like Frank Auerbach to emerging talents like Rachel Jones.

Artists and the city through the decades, from stalwarts like Frank Auerbach to emerging talents like Rachel Jones.

Frank Auerbach. Image: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

A city with an voracious appetite for culture, London is a hub of innovation. And with a history dating back at least to the Romans, change may be what’s most familiar to it. Here, ahead of our London Auctions of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, we highlight artists and works with connections to the city and consider the changing cultural climate from the post-war era through the booming 1980s, the irreverent 1990s, and today. All are on view to the public in Phillips’ luminous gallery space at 30 Berkeley Square through 8 March.


Frank Auerbach: From Post-War to Now

Frank Auerbach, J.Y.M. Seated in the Studio II, 1987–1988. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London.

Frank Auerbach rarely leaves London and has worked in his Mornington Crescent studio nearly every day for over 50 years. Since fleeing Germany as a child in 1939, Auerbach has called the city home and has found inspiration in its architecture, unique light, and vibrant community of artists. Auerbach has notably reminisced about spending time in the bohemian barrooms of London’s Soho district with fellow School of London painters Francis Bacon and fellow German expat Lucian Freud. As the mood of the post-war London in which Auerbach came of age was very different than it is today, the artist has witnessed the city’s penchant for creative reinvention unfold time and again since his arrival. And with each revitalized decade, the London art world cognoscenti continues to celebrate his work.

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

In a serendipitous moment, Phillips offers Auerbach’s J.Y.M. Seated in the Studio II while London’s Courtauld Gallery presents the exhibition Frank Auerbach: The Charcoal Heads, which runs through 27 May. The subject of the painting, Juliet Yardley Mills, is a British model who Auerbach first met at Sidcup School of Art in the 1950s. Auerbach was drawn to her talent and skill as a sitter — evidenced here in an extraordinary pose she would have had to hold for hours — and has painted more than 130 works of her throughout their collaboration. His characteristic process — which involves scraping away freshly painted surfaces at the end of each sitting and then painting them again — is on full display here. With this approach each area of the canvas becomes a richly textural celebration of paint’s materiality and the artist’s approach to figuration, as well as a document of the passage of time.


Andy Warhol: Diana and the 1980s

Andy WarholPortrait of Princess Diana, 1982. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London.

Though well-known as a life-long, die-hard New Yorker, whenever Andy Warhol was in London, he brought his Big Apple verve to a frenzy of engagements across the city’s artistic hotspots. And as an artist obsessed with notions of icon, celebrity, and royalty, London welcomed him. After all, the city calls itself home to personalities with varying degrees of titled fame, as well as some of the more prosperous tabloid magazines (alongside the requisite image-obsessed public that keeps them in business).

It makes sense then, that as Lady Diana Spencer made waves across the world from the Thatcher-era booming London, Warhol’s eye would turn to her. Altering Lord Snowden’s official engagement portrait of the royal couple to bring Diana’s face into focus and removing then-Prince Charles entirely, Warhol narrows the scope of the iconic source photograph to present a poignant depiction of a young Diana alone. Made just one year after her marriage to the Prince of Wales, this work is the only blue portrait from the original set of silkscreened canvas, highlighting the color of her iconic engagement ring. The image greets us now with perhaps an even more affecting tone than when it was first made, with Diana’s life story reigning prominently in our collective imagination due to the lauded television show The Crown, in addition to the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth and the subsequent ascension of Charles and Camilla.


The Young British Artists and 1990s Irreverence

In 1988, an enterprising art student at Goldsmiths Art College by the name of Damien Hirst took over an abandoned fire station at Surrey Docks. Assembling his works alongside those of his classmates — including Sarah Lucas — Hirst featured experimental and at times shocking works as he rewrote the rule book for how young artists should behave and how much they should take ownership of their commercial success. Word of the unique show spread quickly and was followed by subsequent prominent exhibitions. London was now the hottest scene in the contemporary art world, and the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs) was born.

Damien Hirst, Cupric Nitrate, 2007. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London.

Throughout the 1990s the YBAs created works that shocked and challenged viewers. Damien Hirst became best known for boundary-pushing sculptures of animals submerged in formaldehyde, his series of medicine cabinets, and his celebrated Spot Paintings. With this sale, Phillips brings one such work, Cupric Nitrate, to auction for the first time. It was included in the Paris iteration of Hirst’s ambitious multi-venue presentation of Spot Paintings, mounted by Gagosian Gallery across its eleven global locations simultaneously in 2012, and in the first major museum retrospective of Hirst’s work, which opened at Tate Modern in London that same year. Works by Tracey Emin — an artist long associated with the YBAs and London — are on offer in the day sale as well, including the provocative self-portraits I held you in my hand and Tight.

Tracey EminI held you in my hand, 2021. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London.


Rachel Jones, Issy Wood, Daisy Dodd-Noble and London Today

Rachel JonesUntitled, 2020. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London.

Today London continues to draw young artists from around the world due to its vibrant cultural climate and exceptional art schools. Rachel Jones, a young London-based painter on the rise, who earned her MA at the Royal Academy Schools in 2019, centers color and ambiguity in her work. Looking beyond the swathes of color that make up the ostensibly abstract Untitled from 2020 reveals two rows of teeth positioned in a clenching fashion — an enduring motif for the artist.

Issy WoodSuper Luncheon, 2020. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London.

As a global hub, London also pulls artists from elsewhere into its embrace. The young artist Issy Wood — who was born in North Carolina — moved to the city to attend Goldsmiths and the Royal Academy Schools and never left. Her 2020 work Super Luncheon, on offer here, is a clear example of the hazy appearance and disquieting surrealism that has come to define her style. Her works are imbued with a sense of a lingering and inescapable past that contaminates our present moment, a sense the writer and curator Margaret Kross has called “the estrangement of the contemporary.” The young painter Daisy Dodd-Noble is yet another American artist who has made London her base. Dodd-Noble, trained in New York, explores themes around the environment and our relationship with nature through bucolic and vividly colored landscapes that spread awareness about environmental conservation.

Daisy Dodd-NobleTree at Waters Edge at Sunset, 2020. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London.


More to Explore

Cecily BrownLuck Just Kissed You Hello, 2013. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London.

Further artists associated with London feature prominently in the sale, including the British painter Cecily Brown. Long associated with the city, the artist has recently relocated to New York and honored with a major career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her lauded blend of figuration and abstraction characterized by theatrical and indulgent compositions is on full display here in her 2013 work Luck Just Kissed You Hello, which was first presented at an eponymous exhibition at Gagosian in Beverly Hills.

Dame Barbara HepworthFour Figures Waiting, 1968. 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London.

Of further note is the 1968 work Four Figures Waiting by British sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth. The artist studied in London at the Royal College of Art before eventually settling in St Ives until her passing in 1975. One of the most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century and a defining figure of international modernism, this work showcases the elongated forms, experimental approach to space, and sensitivity to the tactility of her chosen materials. Her works often seem to embody both the human figure and the prehistoric standing stones found throughout the Cornish landscape she called home.

With more than 150 works on view, there are nearly endless possibilities for creative discovery in our London gallery right now. The collected works, by artists associated with London and elsewhere, prove that there’s no end in sight to the creative vitality of the city.


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