David Bomberg

1890 – 1957

Bomberg was born on 5 December 1890 in Birmingham. The family moved to Whitechapel soon after, and decided to become an artist in 1908. He attendend the Slade 1911-1913 where he studied alongside other future Vorticists such as William Roberts. He was widely exhibited during 1913-1914, during which time he had nurtured a geometrically precise style that was very close to the style of Vorticism. In 1914, he held a one-man show at the Chenil Gallery, and one of his canvases was shown outside the gallery in the wind and rain. This canvas is thought to have been the Mud Bath from contemporary accounts. This canvas is now in the Tate Modern.

David Bomberg was a self-made artist; he didn’t owe anybody a favour in his journey to the top of the British aesthetic tree – he did it himself. He successfully kept Lewis and the Vorticist group at a distance, because he had a mistrust of Lewis. He wanted to be master of his own destiny, and did not want chances of a one-man show, such as the one he held at the Chenil Gallery, to be compromised by outside associations.

On the other hand, he was a founder-member of the London Group in 1914. This group was a much broader church than the Vorticist group, and less partisan when it came to specific style, or aesthetic.

Was Bomberg a Vorticist?

He was careful to avoid being labelled as a Vorticist, though he was constantly referred to as such (and still is). We will perpetuate this discourtesy here, for I cannot see his work from this time as anything else. It is not Cubist or Futurist, but it shares exactly the same aesthetic concerns as Vorticist works; for example, in the Mud Bath (1914), Bomberg has abstracted the forms of the bathers into geometric dancers, interweaved in a rhythm of shapes that makes the picture radiate potential movement. However, we have the column of the baths in the foreground anchoring all movement securely to the structure of the bathing hall they are in. His colour choice – red, white and blue presage the emotional flagwaving of the outbreak of War a few days later, but once again, these vibrant colours are anchored in reality with the deep umber of that column. His output from this time is harmonically on the same frequency as the Vorticist output of Lewis or Wadsworth. Hence his work is definitely Vorticist in style, though he would claim he was not a Vorticist.

Note that Bomberg never signed the Vorticist manifesto in the pages of Blast. However, he exhibited alongside them in the 1915 Vorticist Exhibition. His work was hung in the ‘invited to show’ section.

He enlisted with the Royal Engineers in November 1915. He was transferred to the Candadian Regiment in December 1917 as a War artist, working, coincidentally, with Lewis, who had also been transferred to the Canadian Regiment as a War artist. Somebody at the Candadian Regiment was very successfull in gaining two of the most outstanding and original artists in Britain at this time, in order to paint works celebrating the Canadian contribution in the War.

In later life, Bomberg suffered badly from poverty; he didn’t sell many works in the 1920′s or 1930′s. He was kept alive with handouts and commissions from friends. Luckily, he decided to keep those wonderful works like The Mud Bath in storage, even though his style had changed completely to a more impressionist style. He still continued to paint.

In the Second World War, he became an official War artist again. He painted the scenes of bombing and destruction in London. His painting Evening in the City of London (1944) is an emotional statement about his beloved town. St Pauls’ Cathedral, dark and scorched from the firestorms that had surrounded it in the height of the Blitz, is standing on the skyline, with jagged, broken outlines of the remains of the city about it. We can assume that the cathedral is painted from the Whitechapel side of the City. The painting speaks of optimism for the future, and a hope for renewal. Some greenery in the foreground, perhaps a tree, or an overgrown bombsite suggests that this renewal is imminent.

After the Second World War, Bomberg started to find a little more recognition. The tiny income as official artist was hardly going to keep food on the table without some outside assistance. A trip to the holy land was arranged for him and his wife, from which he drew much inspiration. He painted some marvellous canvases in the clearer Mediterranian air which reinvigorated him.

A teaching post was found for him by loyal friends. (It seems that Bomberg, unlike Lewis, was able to secure a good deal of genuine bonhommie when things got particularly tough). A post was found for him, working as a teacher of draughtmanship at Borough Polytechnic for one day a week, then later at Bartlett School of Architecture, University College. It was here that some of his ideas about art were handed down to a new generation of painters like Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. But Bomberg’s teaching methods were ‘unconventional’:

“his lessons on the elucidation of sight from the memory of touch were transmitted by osmosis rather than verbally, – but he inspired veneration among those receptive to his ideas. Auerbach had spoken of the ‘atmosphere of research and radicalism that was extremely stimulating’ at Borough Polytechnic, and Kossoff acknowledged ‘it was through my contact with Bomberg that I felt I might actually function as a painter’.”

Transition – the London Art Scene in the 1950′s by Martin Harrison page 28.

He died on 19 August, 1957 in London.

Sources: Transition – the London Art Scene in the 1950′s by Martin Harrison and Vorticism and its Allies by Richard Cork.

2 Responses to David Bomberg

  1. Paul Trewhela says:

    There is now a gallery in London dedicated to the work of Bomberg and his closest students at the Borough Polytechnic from the years between 1945 and 1951, who like Bomberg had been members of the Borough Group,and with whom he’d exhibited alongside his students.

    It’s the Borough Road Gallery at London South Bank University, which developed out of the former Borough Polytechnic. The gallery is the home of A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection. Over 50 years, Sarah Rose collected work by Bomberg and five of his students: Dennis Creffield, Cliff Holden, Edna Mann, Dorothy Mead and Miles Peter Richmond. This is the only site where oit is possible to get an adequate sense of Bomberg’s dedicated teaching .

    Probably his closest student, Miles Richmond (1922-2008) – who painted alongside Bomberg is Spain in his last three years – has a solo exhibition throughout nearly the whole of June 2014 at Messum’s, 8 Cork Street, London WC1.

    • admin says:

      Hi Paul – thanks very much for your comment about David Bomberg. I always think of his pre First World war work as being the most important, but I have also found his London landscapes of around WW2 (showing bomb sites, shattered buildings, St. Pauls) to be just as spellbinding. Wonderful works. I will be visiting the Legacy some time soon, I hope!

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