Sappers under Hill 60
Medium: Pencil, ink and wash on paper
Dimensions: 12 x 16 cm
Acquired at Christie's London in 2010 with the assistance of the Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and anonymous donors
David Bomberg enlisted in 1915 and his harrowing experiences, including the death of his brother, eventually resulted in him shooting himself in the foot. Escaping court martial and temporarily invalided out, he was soon returned to active service. In 1919 he was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to produce a painting of Sappers at Work. The drawing, Sappers under Hill 60, is one of a series of works on this theme executed in 1918-19, which relate to Bomberg’s commissioned oil, Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunneling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi for the Canadian War Records Office. His first, Cubist-influenced version (c. 1918-19, Tate) was rejected, and while the second, more naturalistic version, was accepted (1919, National Gallery of Art, Ottawa), the whole experience left Bomberg highly disillusioned.
The drawing shows British sappers at work building tunnels and trenches in an elaborate underground operation, constructing complex structures of struts, girders and pulleys which eventually resulted in the successful mine attack on a German observation post at St Eloi in March 1916. These tiny drawings, dominated by tall verticals, effectively convey the claustrophobia of the mines and the physical difficulty of the operation. Like the contemporaneous ‘Ghetto Theatre’ drawings, the ‘Sapper’ drawings show the artist beginning to move away from the overtly fractured, mechanised style of pre-war modernism, towards a more human response.
David Bomberg was born in Birmingham in 1890, the fifth child in a Polish-Jewish immigrant family, but grew up in Whitechapel in the East End of London. He initially trained as a lithographer and studied art in evening classes under Walter Sickert and also worked as an artist’s model. A grant from the Jewish Education Art Society enabled him to study at the Slade School of Art from 1911-13 where he was seen as a ‘disturbing influence’.
During this time, he painted a series of complex geometric works – most famously Mud Bath and In the Hold – combining the influence of Cubism and Futurism. (The Futurists were fascinated by the dynamism of modern forms of machinery, transport and communication. One of their main interests was capturing a sense of movement in their works.) However, during World War l, Bomberg served on the Western front.
His experience of the destructive power of machines at war and the death of his brother in the trenches destroyed his faith in the machine age. After the war, his painting became rounded and more representational. He spent four years in Palestine concentrating on landscape painting and later lived in Spain, developing a more vigorous style with looser brushwork. He was an official war artist during the Second World War. After the war, he and his wife, artist Lilian Holt, founded the Borough Group (1948). He taught at the Borough Polytechnic, where his students included Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. In 1954, he settled in Spain.
Born: 1890 Birmingham, England
Died: 1957 London, England