William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Demolition Squad 28.3 x 38.2 cm. (11 1/8 x 15 in.) (sheet); 24.3 x 34.2 cm. (9 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.) (image) (Executed circa 1941)

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Lot 11AR
William Roberts R.A.
(British, 1895-1980)
Demolition Squad 28.3 x 38.2 cm. (11 1/8 x 15 in.) (sheet); 24.3 x 34.2 cm. (9 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.) (image)

Sold for £ 125,000 (US$ 157,362) inc. premium
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980)
Demolition Squad
signed 'William Roberts' (lower left)
pencil and watercolour
28.3 x 38.2 cm. (11 1/8 x 15 in.) (sheet); 24.3 x 34.2 cm. (9 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.) (image)
Executed circa 1941

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    With Anthony d'Offay Couper Gallery, London, where purchased by the family of the present owner
    Private Collection, U.K.

    Exhibited
    London, Anthony d'Offay Couper Gallery, William Roberts R.A., Drawings and Watercolours 1915–1968, 23 September–10 October 1969, cat.no.31

    Literature
    William Roberts, Paintings, 1917-1958, Canale, London, 1960, p.48 (ill.b&w)

    The outbreak of war in September 1939 gave William Roberts a much-needed opportunity. With the turmoil abroad came a great degree of personal upheaval resulting in having to move the family from London to Oxford. However, the conflict brought about new subject matter that favoured his figurative style, which had spent much of the 1930s in the shadow of Abstraction, epitomised by the Unit One movement and spearheaded by Paul Nash and his contemporaries. Roberts had seen some of the bloodiest action during The Great War, toiling in the trenches of Belgium and France with the artillery and carrying out the incredibly dangerous task of repairing communication lines between field batteries. Taken up as an Official War Artist, Roberts produced some outstanding work including the significant oil The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF). However, he is perhaps most admired for the smaller pen and ink drawings and watercolours worked up in the Cubist manner from his Flood Street studio in Chelsea once relieved from active military service. Upon writing to the War Office on the 12th September 1939 in the hope of securing commissions he did so with the benefit of experience, hoping to become one of the few artists to document both conflicts in Europe.

    Roberts was rewarded for his enthusiasm with an assignment to accompany the British Expeditionary Force to France where he would illustrate some of its senior figures. To his detriment the artist failed to appear on the continent, feeling instead that he could produce equally accomplished work in England. Clearly the War Artists' Advisory Committee did not share Roberts' sentiments and owing to his petulance cancelled his contract with almost immediate effect. This unfortunate turn of events scuppered his chances of becoming the fully-fledged war artist he deserved, and it took a grovelling letter to Kenneth Clark, the committee's chairman and owner of his 1929 picture Bath Night (Bolton Museum and Art Gallery), to be reconsidered for even periodic commissions.

    Three instructions from the War Artists' Advisory Committee were to follow with the first, Munitions Factory (1940, City of Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Manchester), capturing the fraught environment at the Woolwich Arsenal. Numerous tradesmen including mechanics, welders and plate-cutters scramble to complete work on an anti-aircraft gun assembly line as the country rises to the challenge of competing with German military might. It was a natural subject for Roberts of course who himself had worked in a Tufnell Park munitions factory during 1915 and manages to successfully incorporate his expertise into the composition whilst at the same time giving centre stage to the individual workers. The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters (City of Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Manchester) followed in 1942 and echoes Roberts' preoccupation with the everyday man and woman playing their part in the war effort. In stark contrast to the raw industry of his first completed commission, this painting transports us into the secret world of intelligence gathering where suited men study a large colourful map of London, divided into sectors whilst telephone operators pass on incoming messages. The final work, A Station Scene in Wartime (1942/43) was executed in watercolour showing a busy platform with men, women and children waving goodbye to one another, evoking the personal strains and emotions placed on family life during wartime. An ironic victim of the conflict itself, this work was destroyed in enemy action shortly after completion.

    Demolition Squad (circa 1941) was not an official commission from the War Artists' Advisory Committee but continues with the artist's theme of portraying daily life during the conflict and re-affirms his interest in it. The setting is a blitzed building in the City of London, most likely Christopher Wren's Christ Church Greyfriars in Newgate Street, which was almost totally destroyed in the intense air raid of 29th December 1940. There are several churches within the area including St Sepulchre, the City Temple and St Andrew Holborn, however these either do not have a view of Justice atop the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) or avoided damage in the raid. Roberts' inclusion of Justice in the distance serves as a symbolic reminder of the force of right over wrong, the nation's endurance over chaotic destruction and future triumph. This is juxtaposed with the blitzed buildings that appear through the gap on the right of the composition and the immediate devastation that is being tended to within the bomb site itself. Here the demolition squad, who carry out their work with stolid and workmanlike resignation, remove bricks, artefacts and a perished body from the church. As they move through the composition the front stretcher bearer turns his head to look at Justice in a show of quiet resilience that would come to epitomise the British attitude to attack.

    Demolition squads were a frequent site during the Blitz and here the artist depicts them with calm and rhythmic movement. This is particularly evident in the tender way in which two members of the squad carefully remove the figure of Christ from the building as if he is being removed from the cross itself. Directly below this, three figures mimic the movement of the stretcher bearers at the top of the composition as they handle a twisted steel girder with the same compassion as a body. Further metal and steel bars and girders populate the pictorial space serving as a reminder that we are embroiled in a modern, unforgiving conflict. This is most noticeable at the left where a single upright steel and the pattern beyond echoes some of the artist's First World War images such as the devastated trees in Searching and Sweeping (1919, Private Collection). Roberts clearly drew on his previous experiences when completing works such as Demolition Squad with the arrangement of figures and their passing of bricks to one another reminiscent of the movement of weaponry between soldiers in A Shell Dump, France (1918-19, Imperial War Museum, London).

    The present work is strikingly similar to the finished oil painting which is suitably held in the collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London. There are some subtle differences such as the arrangement of pipes along with minor additions including the face of Christ, letters 'APR' (Air Raid Precautions) and 'W' (Warden) embossed on some of the squad's uniform and helmet. In the artist's typically fastidious manner, two pencil studies of varying detail are held in the Tate Gallery and offer a fascinating insight into his working method. Roberts' vision of World War II, sadly only transcribed into a few works such as Demolition Squad, differed from those of his eminent contemporaries such as Paul Nash, Henry Moore and John Piper as 'he understood immediately that for most of the population the war represented sheer hard graft and inconvenience, and that this called for an interpretation that was workaday-heroic rather than poetic'. (Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts, An English Cubist, Lund Humphries, Hampshire, 2004, p.96).

    We are grateful to David Cleall and Bob Davenport for their assistance in cataloguing this work.
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