Q interview: Samuel West

The actor talks to Art Quarterly about his passion for Frank Auerbach's work, which he discovered while playing Hamlet.

Samuel West in the RSC's 2001 production of Hamlet © Malcolm Davies Collection

Samuel West in the RSC's 2001 production of Hamlet


© Malcolm Davies Collection

The artist I’ve been most moved by is Frank Auerbach. In 2001 I was playing Hamlet at the RSC, when he had a big exhibition at the Royal Academy, and several members of the company went to see it. All of us were very struck by his work, and I was moved and inspired by the story of his life as well. [Born in Berlin in 1931, Auerbach was sent to England in 1939, leaving behind his parents, both of whom died in concentration camps.] He seems peculiarly driven in his single-minded devotion to his art. And maybe because Hamlet is such an extraordinary part, I was feeling similarly driven at the time.

I briefly had some sort of fantasy that I might one day make a pilgrimage to his door and ask to be painted by him because I admire his work so much, but then I thought: don’t be ridiculous. Even if he deigned to paint you, if he thought there was anything interesting enough about you, it would mean sitting for two hours every week on the same day for up to two years. You’re not allowed to go away unless he does, and he never goes on holiday! He paints in oils, which take more than seven days to dry, so each week when he puts the painting back on the easel 99 times out of 100 he will pick up an old newspaper, scrunch it up, scrape the paint off the canvas and start again. And then just as he’s about to do that for perhaps the hundredth time, he’ll say: ‘No. I think this is finished.’

“That level of absorption is deeply unfashionable, but it is inspiring: that urge to create; the idea that who you are and what you do are inseparable.”

It seems to me more than perfectionism, the idea that something is never quite right, that it could always be better – until, eventually, something in the thickness of the paint, or in the eye, or the way the arm and the eye work together, makes him think, ‘That’s the one.’

He works in charcoal as well, and the great thing about this is that even when he tries to erase it, there’s always a palimpsest of the original line underneath, so his drawings become a conglomeration of all the rubbings-out and all the scribblings-over. Even though he buys the thickest paper available, it still wears out, and sometimes he has to patch it. I love this idea that all your erasing and trying again in the end contributes to the eventual whole because, in the end, not everything can quite be erased.

There’s a lovely story in the film that his son Jake produced about him [Frank Auerbach: To the Studio, 2001], where his family bought him a two-week holiday somewhere like the Seychelles. He lasted four days and came home, he said, because he had to paint. He had to draw. At one point in the film, he’s asked: ‘Would you describe yourself as obsessive?’ To which Auerbach replies: ‘Oh yes, I hope so.’ That level of absorption is deeply unfashionable, but it is inspiring: that urge to create; the idea that who you are and what you do are inseparable.

Auerbach once said in an interview that he went to the theatre once a year, so I contacted him through his agent to say how moved the company had been by his work and that I would be delighted if he would come to see Hamlet at the Barbican. He very kindly said yes, and after the performance, he came round to the stage door, and we shook hands. I don’t know that he’d had a particularly good evening. It was quite long. But he was very nice. And I was glad to have been able to tell him how much I admire his work, and also very touched that he had come to see mine. Last year he saw me in a restaurant and came up to me and said, ‘Do you remember?’ Of course I remembered! That was brilliant!

I’m not sure there’s a connection between Hamlet and Auerbach beyond the compulsion that Hamlet has to look beyond the pomp and the circumstance of Elsinore to find out what’s actually going on and who murdered his father. It is Hamlet’s devotion to seeing things properly and clearly – “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems”’ – that eventually enables him to see through the deception. Perhaps that’s why Auerbach’s work first made such an impression on me. We could all do with a bit more of his single-mindedness.

Frank Auerbach is at Tate Britain from 9 October 2015 to 13 March 2016.

Samuel West is an actor, director and chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's autumn 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

Venue details

Tate Britain Millbank Greater London SW1P 4RG 020 7887 8888 www.tate.org.uk/britain

Entry details

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Daily, 10am 6pm (last admission 5.15pm) Closed 24 26 Dec

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