Bomb Store, No.3 oil on canvas 59 x 74 cm. (23 1/4 x 29 in.) Painted circa 1943-44
PROVENANCE: With The Belgrave Gallery, London, September 1977 Sale; Sotheby's, London, 25 May 1983, lot 135
EXHIBITED: London, The Belgrave Gallery, Masters of Modern British Painting 1890-1945, 1977, no.32
As World War II broke out in Europe, Bomberg felt a pressing need to contribute in some way (largely motivated through a lack of work and money at the time) and repeatedly suggested that artists be employed to depict and document the historic events. His pleas fell on deaf ears but to his joy and satisfaction, in 1939 it was announced that a War Artist's Advisory Committee was being set up for exactly this purpose.
He immediately wrote declaring his capability and enthusiasm for the cause. The first application was rejected, much to his disappointment and surprise. He tried again in 1940 and once more in 1941, with the same lack of success. As an artist, he was confused but as a man he was crushed. In 1942, he complained bitterly to the committee and demanded an explanation for his constant rejection. Not only this but he stressed that the blame for his forthcoming destitution would be laid entirely at their door. Kenneth Clark was a key decision-maker at the time and had awarded numerous commissions to artists such as Nash, Moore, Spencer and Kennington as part of the scheme. It was a sanitized and approved vision of war that they wanted, celebrating Britain's effort. Perhaps the WAAC saw Bomberg's style and outlook as a liability and preferred that the other men could be persuaded to be more conformist in their approach.
However, finally Bomberg received some good news, his tirade had worked and he "should be commissioned to make a painting of an underground bomb store for a fee of 25 guineas". (Richard Cork, David Bomberg, Yale University Press, 1987, p.233). Following almost four years of inactivity and almost 300 applications for teaching posts, he was ecstatic. He was sent to Burton on Trent in Staffordshire where he would spend two weeks 90 feet below ground in long disused gypsum mines. Here, almost 10,000 tons of bombs were stored in anticipation of future air raids on German cities. Bomberg worked feverishly and when he ran out of canvas, he worked on greaseproof paper. Owing to censorship and secrecy, all his sketches had to be stored at the depot overnight and he could not discuss the project with anyone.
His fervour for the task at hand shows in the physical rendering of the present work. There is a spontaneity to the surface as Bomberg's animated strokes and dashes of colour reveal the composition. Unlike many of his bomb store works, this is somewhat 'easy to read' perhaps a nod to the WAAC's preference for clarity. But there is no propaganda here and the artist portrays the chamber and racks of bombs in a way that the viewer is in no uncertain terms of its purpose. To hold instruments of war that will be used to kill. A central figure checks one of the stacks and indeed, Bomberg had been nervous whilst in the store. Justifiably, as on 27 November 1944, there was a massive explosion that could be felt as far away as Rome and killed 68 men and 200 cattle. Caused by safety negligence, the terrible accident was covered up for years.
So not only can the present work be seen as a powerful painting by Bomberg executed in difficult conditions, a historical document of a place now destroyed and a revealing insight into the atrocities of war it offers an extremely rare opportunity to acquire a wartime oil by the artist, with his bomb store pictures appearing very infrequently at auction.