Dreweatts is thrilled to announce that it will offer a collection of 14 works by the great David Bomberg (1890-1957), one of the most important and influential British artists of the first half of the last century. The collection has remained in private hands and acquired by Bomberg’s most significant supporter, the engineer Arthur Abraham Stambois, who was passionate about the arts and saw a unique talent in the artist. He purchased his first six works by Bomberg in 1936 and would go on to purchase the rest of the collection during the following years championing Bomberg’s works for the whole of his career.
We are delighted to have worked closely with pre-eminent scholar Richard Cork on this collection. His extensive study on David Bomberg which was published in 1986 has remained the leading text on the artist. It has been wonderful to share this collection with Richard and hear his insightful and intimate responses to each individual work.
Four years after the cessation of the First World War, which had inflicted a nightmarish amount of suffering on the young Bomberg, he painted Moving Vans (Lot 46). It discloses a great deal about his current state of mind. Both the vans and the horses seem to be wandering, as if unsure of their ultimate destination. The streets around them still appear blighted by the destruction of conflict, and Bomberg himself now felt eager to escape from the beleaguered mood of London, a metropolis which had stimulated him so much before the war.
That is why he left London in 1923 and went to Palestine, where The Man From Hebron (Lot 47) shows just how much his work changed in the rush of heat and light which stimulated him there. One figure dominates this painting, surrounded by an expanse of sky. Bomberg summarizes the man’s isolated stance and apparel with confident swiftness, but his face is painted in a more detailed way and reveals his stoical attempt to cope with a life of suffering.
The following year, Bomberg focused on landscape rather than people, after accepting an irresistible invitation to visit Petra. The blue sky is even more intense in The Rock Façade, North-East Wall, Petra, (Lot 48) and strong sunlight almost carves its way into this formidable rock-face. Bomberg adopts a far more detailed and tightly defined style here, apart from a passage in the lower right corner handled with considerable freedom. The rock façade itself is painted in a more rigid way, as Bomberg responds to his dramatic subject with thoroughgoing commitment.
Back in London, at the outset of the 1930s, he put this approach behind him. Portrait of Ethel (Lot 50) celebrates the essential vivacity of the young girl with delightful spontaneity. The freely applied strokes acknowledge the fact that Ethel will not want to stand still for very long. Bomberg makes us feel her playful elan, and the surroundings are defined in brushmarks alive with restless movement. But she is also meditative, and more than a hint of sadness can be detected in her expression.
Bomberg himself enjoyed a similar sense of release when he went over to Spain. Having found immense stimulus on a visit to Toledo in 1929, he was delighted to return five years later. Excited by encountering The Garden and Tower of the Sacristy, Cuenca Cathedral (Lot 51), he chose a very dramatic vantage. It emphasizes the sheer dynamism of the buildings as they thrust upwards, and at the same Bomberg emphasizes the boisterous abundance of the garden among these architectural elements. The strength of all this green growth makes us imagine that it might soon cover far more of the cathedral’s façade, eventually hiding the structure which Bomberg defines here with such aplomb.
One year later, settled now in his beloved Ronda, he witnessed an enthralling nocturnal spectacle. Virgin of Peace in Procession, Ronda (Lot 52) captivated him so much that he executed this free, dream-like painting. Although bordering on abstraction, it also responds to the mysterious scene he scrutinised in the very heart of Ronda. The enveloping darkness is punctuated by the luminosity of of the ardent figures proceeding through the streets below him. As a result, Bomberg pays a heartfelt tribute to the spell-binding aura of a city he profoundly adored.
Although no figures can be seen in Hills Near Ronda, Nocturne (Lot 53), the painting is still highly dramatic. It concentrates on the moment when the last vestiges of evening light are about to vanish altogether. Very soon, the entire monumental scene will be engulfed in the dark already spreading across these mighty hills – apart from an isolated splash of light enlivening the foreground. Bomberg admired the redoubtable vitality of the landscape around Ronda, yet he was also growing aware of the terrifying and ruthless violence spreading across Spain, forcing him to think about leaving.
In 1937, after returning so unwillingly to London, Bomberg wandered down to the river he knew so well. Substantial buildings can be detected in Thames Barges (Lot 54), but this architecture is silhouetted in the background. He gives the greatest prominence to the barges moored in the water, silently waiting for their next expeditions. So indeed was Bomberg, who may well have identified with their stillness because his roaming adventures in Europe had been abruptly terminated by war.
During the same year, at the age of 47, he painted a Self-Portrait (Lot 55) with unflinching honesty. Now restricting himself to a very subdued palette, he gazes at his reflection with more than a hint of melancholy. Bomberg misses Spain so much, and frustration can be detected in his facial expression. Even so, he also conveys a sense of obstinate resolve. He is determined to continue his work as a painter despite all the disappointments he had suffered.
By the time he painted Portrait of a Gentleman (Lot 56) in 1942, the Second World War had made London life far harsher. So many people were being killed in the metropolis, and a profound sadness is detectable in this sitter’s blanched face. Bomberg has even let a drop of white paint run down from the shoulder, like a tear left glistening on his jacket after a bout of weeping.
The face in the other Portrait of a Gentleman (Lot 57) is warmer in colour, and a handkerchief thrusts out of his pocket with a sense of energy. The pale pigment applied so freely around his head adds to this feeling, and there may even be a hint of a smile in the curve of his lips. Perhaps he is sharing a joke with Bomberg, but the light heartedness ultimately seems fleeting.
In 1944, after teaching drawing to gun crews in Hyde Park, Bomberg found much-needed stimulus on a Welsh painting expedition. Although the small buildings around the bay’s edge look defensive in his painting of Caernafon Bay, North Wales (Lot 58), the long and tragic war was now approaching its final stages. Luminosity is invading the sky as well as the rural sweep of land summarised in the foreground. As he would later show on a fruitful visit to North Devon, Bomberg responded greatly to the interaction between earth and sea. Caernafon Bay seems to be inviting us to make our way down there as soon as possible, so that we can all embrace the freedom offered by the water’s refreshing expanse.
Four years later, Bomberg was lucky enough to be given the opportunity, by his generous son-in-law Leslie Marr, to visit Cyprus. Here, in an exuberant canvas called Hills Above Chrisostomas Monastery, Cyprus (Lot 59), the post-war world was celebrated by an artist eager to explore and relish the heat and light around him. The fast-changing sky is echoed by the equally restless countryside below, where Bomberg rejoices in an overwhelming abundance of colour. These hills seem to be festive, as if savouring the beneficence of their exposure to air and sun. Closer inspection of this painting reveals just how much pigment Bomberg lavished on his landscape, enhancing its joyful sense of immediacy. The thickness of paint in certain areas conveys the tactility of the scene, suggesting that Bomberg relished reaching out and touching it as much possible. Looking at this canvas, we realise just how much of nature’s inherent and essential dynamism Bomberg wanted to convey, thereby giving us all a vivid apprehension of what he described, in a very memorable phrase, as ‘our search’ for ‘the spirit in the mass.’
Take a virtual tour of the private collection on view in the Dreweatts London gallery.
Wednesday 19 October | 10.30am BST
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
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