A powerful painting of a Staffordshire bomb store by the artist David Bomberg will be offered by Bonhams in the 20th Century British Art sale on March 9th. The painting is estimated to sell for £80,000 – 120,000.
As World War II broke out in Europe, Bomberg felt a pressing need to contribute in some way and repeatedly suggested that artists be employed to depict and document the historic events. To his satisfaction, in 1939 it was announced that a War Artist’s Advisory Committee (WACC) was set up for exactly this purpose.
Following almost four years of inactivity and almost 300 applications for teaching posts, Bomberg’s request to participate in the cause was finally accepted. In 1943, he was sent to Burton on Trent in Staffordshire where he spent two weeks, ninety feet below ground in long disused gypsum mines. Here, almost ten thousand 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.
There is spontaneity to the surface in Bomberg’s animated strokes and dashes of colour. Unlike many of his bomb store works, this is somewhat ‘easy to read’ – perhaps a nod to the WAAC’s preference for clarity in works by commissioned artists. However, 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.
Bomberg had been nervous whilst in the store and justifiably so, as just a year later on the 27th November 1944 there was a massive explosion that could be felt as far away as Rome, killing 68 men and 200 cattle. Caused by safety negligence, the terrible accident was covered up for years.
Not only can the present work be seen as a powerful painting by Bomberg executed in difficult conditions, it is a historical document of a place now destroyed and a revealing insight into the atrocities of war.