Bomberg's 'bomb store' painting: A look behind the curtain of the theatre of war

Bonhams' upcoming 20th Century British Art sale will feature an historic and poignant painting by influential British artist and 'Whitechapel Boy', David Bomberg.  The piece depicts an underground 'bomb store' near Burton-on-Trent, and is a powerful illustration of the British government's secret preparations for war.

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Bomberg felt compelled to contribute to the war effort in some way.  He urged that artists be used to depict the historic events that were unfolding; the government agreed and the War Artist's Advisory Committee (WACC) was created.

In 1943, Bomberg was sent to Staffordshire to spend a fortnight painting 90 feet below ground in disused gypsum mines - transformed into an enormous bomb store.  The mines housed 10,000 tons of bombs, in anticipation of German air raids.  Bomberg set about depicting them.

Bomberg's feverish and spontaneous approach to painting the bomb store is evident in the work.  It is filled with lively brush strokes and vivid colour, despite being created in the depths of the earth.  The painting is clear and unbiased, simply showing what Bomberg saw - rather than a patriotic or idealised version of the truth.


Bomberg 'bomb store' painting
'Going Underground' - Bomberg's 'bomb store' painting

The working environment was pressured and difficult.  His work was subject to strict censorship due to the sensitive nature of the subject, meaning it had to be kept in the depot each night.  In addition, Bomberg felt unnerved by the mines and with good cause - a year later, 68 men and 200 cattle were killed in a huge explosion, which was shamefully covered up.

The work now acts as an excellent insight into war 'behind the scenes'; the assembly of an arsenal used, quite simply, to kill.  The painting demonstrates Bomberg's skill in the face of tough conditions, and is a frank portrait, out of step with the endless propaganda fed to civilians in wartime.

This excellent piece by one of the most revered British artists of the 20th Century is expected to realise between £80,000-120,000.  It would make a wonderful addition to any collection, as both a long-term investment and as a stark reminder of the reality of conflict.


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