Frank Auerbach and the tormented surfaces of postwar London

There are echoes of Rembrandt in these paintings of building sites

There is something of the rugged craftsman in some of the photographs of the young Frank Auerbach included in the catalogue for an exhibition now showing at the Courtauld Gallery, "Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62". We see the artist's overalls spotted with paint, surrounded by buckets, easels and canvases, sparse pencil sketches pinned on the walls. The photographs were taken in the early Sixties, when Auerbach, a Jewish refugee, was probably still working on his London building site paintings.

The paintings invite questions in the mind of the viewer: is that mud or concreted coal hanging on the wall? Or is it dried-up volcanic lava or soil? Auerbach created these thickly impacted oils on board in postwar London, where he was inspired by a cityscape pockmarked with bombsites. The paint is layered thickly and vigorously on these tormented surfaces, as if the artist was struggling with his material. In the densely massed forms of Earls Court Road: Winter, for instance, dried magma-like oil glitters with a mysterious vitality.

If Jackson Pollock comes to mind here, there is neverthless no hint of Pollock's light and airy drippings; nor is there any sense that Auerbach was interested in using real materials, in the way that, say, his contemporary Jean Dubuffet did. What seems really to have interested him was a kind of personal, involving journey into the flesh of the suffering city itself.

Whether he was influenced by American abstract expressionism or by constructivism is something I'll happily leave to the experts to decide. What struck me, standing in front of the rich yellows and ochres of Maples Demolition, was Rembrandt's use of exactly these same colours. The chaos of twisted steel girders has the same golden aura as Belshazzar's Feast. The surface is marked with slashes of built-up illusionist paint, possibly recalling fallen crosses, scars in the earth and dripping blood. Rembrandt's The Slaughtered Ox seems not so far away.

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution