Caught by the River

Euston Steps

Adam Scovell | 20th January 2019

Adam Scovell tracks down the scene of a 1980 painting by Frank Auerbach.


(c) Frank Auerbach; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On viewing a very particular painting by Frank Auerbach, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu. The painting was of a set of steps, the handrails – strangely thick and dark brown – arching down to a busy pavement, all of which seemed familiar. It was only later when finally learning the title of this 1980 painting that it became apparent that it was the steps at Euston Station and probably one of the first images I ever saw of London. Coming out of the dark terminus onto the road was akin to some gateway leading out onto a fantastical, faded plateau of never-ending people, cars, noise, rubbish and decay.

Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931, eventually sent to Britain on one of the Kindertransport trains from Germany in 1939. Going to school in Faversham, he quickly became immersed in drama and painting, eventually leading to places at Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. His painting quickly found him success with his first solo exhibition in 1956, leading to a string of increasingly successful exhibitions. The painter’s life was filled so completely with memories and journeys that they were even partly fictionalised by W.G. Sebald in The Emigrants (1992).

Today, Auerbach is considered part of the loose group of post-war artists known under the banner of the London School. Alongside more well known figures such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the paintings captured the mood of post-war London via stylistic recreations of people and places around the capital; often emphasising a desire for more emotional resonances through aesthetics rather than abstraction through more purely expressionistic purposes. Along with Leon Kossoff, Auerbach was a leader in capturing the everyday chaos of the city and the lost souls who wandered its pavements.

Euston itself is one of the odder relics of the 1960s revamp of the city, or vandalism depending on your viewpoint. The destruction of the grand Victorian station that was originally Euston – seen in surviving pictures with its old grandeur, expansive archway and atmospheric Great Hall – is almost surreal in comparison to what was built in its place. Such was the anger of Sir John Betjeman at the destruction that his newly formed Victorian Society for the preservation of buildings went on to successfully save St. Pancras, also earmarked for similar demolition in 1966. It was not to be for the old Euston station, however, which fell in 1962 thanks to Harold Macmillan who suggested that “An obsession with such buildings will drain our national vitality.” Neither the station eventually rebuilt nor Macmillan’s philosophy has aged well.

Yet there is something interesting about the 1960s build at Euston, even if such interest is caused by its general and abject architectural failure rather than success. A failure is still more interesting than a nonentity. It’s easy to see also why Auerbach found some inspiration here and a natural fit for his painting. Auerbach’s London was one sketched and formed by strong lines only. The detail when filled in was often a muddy yet beautiful haze of thick oils and vibrant colours. Whilst the strong details of pre-twentieth century architecture is barely reassembled once shot through the prism of the painter’s eye, post-war architecture’s designs are, perhaps because of their equally strong lines, uniform blocks and unforgiving simplicity.

Alongside the déjà vu that came with first seeing Auerbach’s painting was a quiet sense of sadness. This was one that was projected by me as the viewer rather than strictly inherent in the painting, though Auerbach’s past must surely connect some similar sadness to trains and train stations. Before moving to London, Euston meant only one thing: leaving the capital and all of the vibrancy that drew me towards it. The station maintained a gravitational pull back to the north which, at the time, I fought incessantly. I didn’t want to go back, but the pull of Euston and its train eventually dragged through Crewe and beyond on every occasion. From that association alone, Euston has often been somewhere I’ve generally avoided, as if it might still have the power to throw me backwards in some temporal and geographical sense to where I no longer want to be. In spite of this, I wandered to the station one gloomy winter’s day, looking for the steps as Auerbach had seen them.

I wandered from one end of the shining yet grey station to the other, the walkways blocked by development barriers, all professing bright futures for what must now be London’s gloomiest of terminals. But walking around, I couldn’t help but notice the unusual familiarity of somewhere that seems to never stand still; where some people are fleeting and impatient but others are markedly fixed. There was the busker, still playing the vocal lines of pop songs in a jazz style on a mahogany-red Les Paul, the bearded policeman I had seen on almost every visit to the station in recent years patrolling with a terrifying-looking rifle, and the homeless woman unable to speak under the tree in Euston Square Gardens still begging with hands clasped in prayer. The stasis of Euston is simply reflective of the stasis of the country.

I found the steps, now busy with rapid footfall due to an M&S food hall. They lead onto Eversholt Street; a busy, enjoyably dirty London road that suggests nothing less than Camden. But the steps presented a greater contrast than Auerbach’s painting because of the finer detail of reality. Whereas the figures in the painting seem to be nothing less than travellers, implied by the location, most people in my photograph as I snapped it, were homeless. Two sat by the lamppost on the pavement, warmed under some sleeping bags and making jokes at the passersby. Another carried a battered haversack and blanket as he walked with a small dog, whilst yet another asked for change as he made his way down the steps to nowhere. I snapped my Polaroid but felt that few places I have wandered to in the city have found such a melancholic match between people and architecture; where hope for the future is as dark as the cold and unforgiving stone of the designs all around, giving shelter.