FIELD WORKERS, PALESTINE
Signed l.r. D. Bomberg
Pencil on paper
28 x 38cm | Framed: 39 x 46cm
The Leicester Galleries, London;
Professor M. J. Stewart (1885-1956) [Matthew John Stewart, Professor of Pathology and Bacteriology, sub-academic dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Leeds Medical School];
Dinora Davies-Rees (née Mendelson, d.2010) [The artist's step-daughter];
From whom acquired by the family of the previous owner, thence by descent
The present work was executed c.1923, and has previously been authenticated by Richard Cork.
Bomberg served in the trenches in WWI, losing both his brother and his close friend, the poet-artist Isaac Rosenberg, a fellow Slade student and Whitechapel boy. The effects of the war, coupled with a lacklustre reception to his first post-war exhibition, led to a deep-seated ennui and dissatisfaction with his chosen career. Sir Muirhead Bone, perhaps aware of the young artist’s unhappiness, recommended his services to the London Zionist Organisation’s director Leon Stein, who was looking for an artist to paint the Zionist pioneer camps in the Levant. Stein assented and Bomberg acquiesced, travelling with his wife Alice to Palestine in 1923 and remaining in the Holy Land for the next four years.
Bomberg was struck immediately by the quality of light and colour upon arrival in Jerusalem, in contrast to drab London, recalling later on in life “I was a poor boy from the East End and I’d never sun the sunlight before”. Contrary to the Italian quattrocento depictions he was familiar with - Botticelli being a favourite of his as a teenager - he found Jerusalem more like a ‘Russian toy city – set against the hills…’ and revelled in the novelty.
Although Bomberg was expected to produce propaganda imagery for the Zionist Organisation, he chafed against such a blatantly political brief. He focused instead on the simmering heat of the countryside, the sun-drenched sands and hard-scrabble environs, and the washed-out, earthy tones of the settlements he encountered. He began to relinquish his wartime obsession with the human form and machinery, replacing it instead with what would become a lifelong obsession with topography and architecture.
Writing in 1964, David Sylvester argued for the intensity of Bomberg’s relationship with his surroundings: “It is as if the painter, in contemplating the landscape out there, had felt he was feeling his way over it with hands and feet and knees – here climbing laboriously up a steep rock face, there zooming into a valley with the slope in control of his limbs.” (1)
David Bomberg was born in Birmingham, the fifth child of Abraham and Rebecca Klein Bomberg, Polish-Jewish immigrants who had come to England to escape the Russian and Polish pogroms. By his fifth birthday, the family had moved to London's East End, to the hub of fellow Polish-Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel. Bomberg's education began in earnest with a move to London in 1905 and evening classes under Walter Bayes at the City & Guilds. He was fortunate to study under Walter Sickert at the Central School of Art and Westminster College, before joining the ranks of the 'golden generation' (also known today as 'The Crisis of Brilliance') at the Slade School, alongside luminaries like the brothers Paul and John Nash, Dora Carrington, Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, and Mark Gertler (among many others).
Before World War I he worked for a period at Roger Fry's Omega Workshop and he traveled to Paris, meeting Picasso, Derain and Modigliani. It was during this time that he attracted the attention of Percy Wyndham Lewis, who invited him into the self-titled 'Vorticist' group; however, Bomberg rejected being bracketed with this group: he refused to have his work illustrated in Blast magazine and would only allow his paintings be included in the 'Invited to show' section of the 1915 Vorticist Exhibition held in London. Bomberg also exhibited with the New England Art Club and was a founder member of the London Group.
Bomberg was a keen traveler, often more at home with foreign subject matter, and the 1920s also saw his first trips to Spain and Palestine.
Bomberg was the inspiration behind the formation of the Borough Group in 1946, which later became the Borough Bottega. The Borough Group centered on those figures taught by Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic and included the aforementioned Auerbach and Kossoff, but also notable artists such as Dennis Creffield. Borough University (as it is now) holds a significant collection of the artists' work. The Tate Gallery held a major retrospective of Bomberg's work in 1988 and, more recently, a number of significant monographs and biographies have been published, as part of a broader reappreciation of this enormously influential titan of Modern British art.
(1) David Sylvester, ‘The Discovering of a Structure’, in David Bomberg 1890–1957, (1964, exhib. cat.), Marlborough Fine Art, London, pp.2–4
(i) Bomberg (ed. MacDougall & Dickson), London (2017)