David Bomberg 1890-1957


Marlborough Fine Art, London
Lionel Jacobson Collection
Private Collection, UK
David Bomberg was born into an impoverished Jewish-Polish immigrant family in Birmingham in 1890. He started his career in 1905 as an apprentice lithographer, and later followed courses at Westminster School of Art (1908-1910) where he studied under Walter Richard Sickert. From 1911 to 1913 he attended the Slade School of Fine Art, at the same time as Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson and Stanley Spencer, partially funding himself through art school by working as a life model. Already hugely influenced by experimental art in Europe, particularly Cubism and Futurism, Bomberg travelled to Paris in 1913 and in this year he was expelled from the Slade. Bomberg was loosely affiliated with many avant-garde groups in London including Roger Fry's Omega Workshops and the Camden Town Group but his angular, bombastic, violent paintings in the two years leading up the war reveal his proximity to Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist Group with whom Bomberg exhibited in 1915, although Bomberg turned down an invitation to officially join the group. Several masterpieces from these early years are held by the Tate Gallery, London including In The Hold (1913-14) and The Mud Bath (1914).
Between the wars Bomberg travelled widely, constantly struggling to make a living as an artist but after the Second World War a string of teaching post brought relative stability. The school where he built his greatest legacy was Borough Polytechnic. His belief that teaching draughtsmanship was, as one of his students Roy Oxlade put it, ‘not simply a matter of carrying out a predetermined plan but was something which evolved organically’ irked the art school establishment. The classes were shaped by a ‘mutual dependence between master and students’, and involved such a complete shift away from orthodox methods that ‘draughtsmanship’ itself seemed set on the chopping block. Bomberg rejected all notion that he was promoting a style, school, or pedagogic formula, and claimed that he was only teaching what began to be described as an ‘approach to mass’. But by 1953, the classes were over, his time there drew to a close, and although a newly-formed exhibition group, the Borough Bottega, began to exhibit together that November, their shows did not find the high level of recognition for which Bomberg had hoped. Financial strain again began to trouble David and Lilian’s lives. Their thoughts turned to Spain, to Bomberg’s fine work produced there in the thirties, and the couple resolved to return to Ronda.

Hampstead Heath is one of the last paintings completed by Bomberg before he left for Spain. Set against the Borough Bottega meetings held at Dinora and Leslie Marr’s house on Steeles Road in Belsize Park, the heath was a convenient location for Lilian and David who lived just around the corner on Rosslyn Hill. The work presents a view of trees in a clearing. Autumn is implied through a palette of golds, muddy greens and faded scarlet. Bare branches appear through the foliage of the large tree which dominates the composition and forms the picture’s principal subject. Rather than the furious energy found in Bomberg’s Spanish work from the following year, here subtle flicks of the brush sensitively build a figure of the tree which sits for its portrait. Posed in its regal robes, the tree appears to welcome the artist’s gaze, a distinct contrast to the angular, pugnacious vegetation Bomberg would rediscover around the gorge of the river Tajo. This handling of paint, modest colour range, raised perspective and seemingly nondescript choice of subject in Hampstead Heath recalls the work of Spencer Gore at Richmond or around Mornington Crescent (Wood in Richmond Park, 1914, Birmingham Museums Trust; Mornington Crescent, 1911, Tate). While also looking forward to more recent work completed in Hampstead by his student Frank Auerbach, like Gore, Bomberg charges his subject with an understated but reverberant presence. The feeling of watching as the clear October light breaks the cloud, catching the nearest leaves to turn them white, of being there on the blustery heath, emanates from the work. Bomberg expected to return to live in England, but he would die in London only three days after his return from Ronda, aged just sixty-seven. Charged with a retrospective poignancy, this picture now stands as his farewell to the country and city that taught him to paint, and in which he reciprocally taught.