Bomberg's Long Overdue Legacy

Rebecca Wallersteiner - Thursday 21st 2012f June 2012


David Bomberg died penniless in 1957. Now, 50 years later, he is viewed as one of the most exceptional artists of his generation. A collector, Sarah Rose, who was a friend of one of Bomberg's pupils, has donated 14 of his works to a London gallery, which is now mounting a remarkable exhibition.

On 23 June, the new Borough Road Gallery opens its doors to launch its first exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist David Bomberg and his students. The extraordinary collection, called The David Bomberg Legacy, spans almost 100 years, from 1913 to 2009. It was been donated to the gallery by a feisty Australian Jewish collector who immigrated to London in the 1950s, whose story, ­like that of Bomberg, is an interesting one.

Sarah Rose wasn't born wealthy and drove taxis at night after working all day, to enable her to buy pictures. A generous grant of GBP238,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund has funded the renovation of two rooms in the London South Bank University's Borough Road building to house the collection permanently. Curator Mary Paterson says, "The Borough Road Gallery will provide an exciting new space to show major artists and run exhibitions and educational events, in an area where they thrived."

It is fitting for Sarah's collection to be housed in this building as Bomberg taught his students line drawing in the upstairs rooms. Among these were painters Dennis Creffield, Cliff Holden, Thomas Holden, Edward Lundqvist, Dorothy Mead and Miles Peter Richmond. They formed the Borough Group in 1947 and elected Bomberg as their president in 1948. Born in 1890, as the seventh of eleven children to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Bomberg is now regarded as one of the twentieth century's most significant artists and his pictures hang in the Tate. He is perhaps best known for his paintings of Jerusalem and Palestine in the 1920s and work as an official war artist in the Second World War. Bomberg grew up in Birmingham's thriving Jewish community, until his father­ - a leather-worker - moved the family to Whitechapel. A Jewish charity, recognising his outstanding talent, funded a scholarship enabling him to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, and it went from there.

Art historian and dealer James Hyman is the sole dealer for Dennis Creffield who at 17 was one of the youngest of Bomberg's students. Hyman says, "David Bomberg was one of the most audacious painters of his generation. His treatment of the human figure, in terms of angular, clear-cut forms combined with enormous energy, shows his determination to bring about a drastic renewal in British painting."

During the First World War, Bomberg enlisted with the Royal Engineers and was sent to the front. He was traumatised by the butchery of war and the destructive power of machines, and this caused him to change to a more figurative and less stark style of drawing. Assisted by a Zionist organisation, Bomberg travelled to Palestine between 1923 and 1927. Feeling more at peace with himself than usual, he took to painting inspirational landscapes of Jerusalem. After the war broke out, he received a wartime commission to create his renowned 'Bomb Store' series.

Teaching drawing at the London South Bank University and Borough Polytechnic during the 1940s and 1950s gave stability to his troubled life. It also allowed him to develop others, with renowned artists Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff among his students.

The LSBU had started life by offering vocational training to poor, working class people, who lived in a traditionally artisan area with a significant Jewish population (its bakery school, still in existence today, was then very popular).
In contrast to Bomberg, Sarah Rose was born to Jewish parents in Australia and spent her childhood growing up on the other side of the world. She arrived in London in her twenties and became friends with Cliff Holden, who was taught by Bomberg in the 1950s. Over the years she formed her collection and has generously donated more than 150 works, including 14 by Bomberg, to form the new gallery. Bomberg died in 1957. He was penniless, isolated and bitter, while his work was unfashionable. It was not until about 25 years after his death that it started to become popular.

Collecting so many of his works today would be impossible, given how their value has sky-rocketed. Hyman says, "Bomberg's last years were darkened by the realisation that his art remained overlooked in Britain. His final landscapes and figure paintings include some of his most powerful works."

Bomberg's work now lives on in the work of another generation, and his influence can be seen in the landscapes and portraits of Israeli artist Ardyn Halter, who says, "Bomberg was a painter's painter and his true greatness has yet to be recognised. His powerful portraits and landscapes are the fusion of a penetrating vision and a style that is hard-won, without the affectation of seeking to appear hard-won. He deserves even greater acclaim than that now enjoyed by his former students Auerbach and Kossoff."

-- The David Bomberg Legacy is showing at the Borough Road Gallery, London South Bank University, 103 Borough Road, London SE1. Admission is free. See www.lsbu.ac.uk --