Summary

In an unpublished letter sent to The Times on 20 October 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War (1939-45) David Bomberg wrote, 'In a war fought for freedom and progressive culture, the artist surely has a vital role to play. The government should call in the artists to inspire the people, to express their ideals and hopes, and create a record of their heroic effort for future generations. The spiritual and cultural need that art alone can satisfy is greater now than in peace time.' (Quoted in Cork 9187, p.231). These sentiments were shared by Sir Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark of Saltwood (1903-1983), the founder and chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), which had been established under the aegis of the Ministry of Information in the autumn of 1939 with a remit to 'record the war at home and abroad' (quoted in Cork 1987, p.231).

Despite repeated applications to the WAAC, Bomberg waited almost three years to receive a commission. The rationale behind this decision is not known, though it may have been rooted in the general policy not to include 'those pure painters who are interested solely in putting down their feelings about shapes and colours, and not in facts, drama, and human emotions generally' (Clark quoted in Cork 1987, p.232), as much as the relative obscurity that Bomberg had drifted into since the mid 1920s. In 1942, however, Bomberg was invited to make a painting of an underground bomb store at RAF Fauld in Tutbury near Burton on Trent. Sited in a disused gypsum mine, it was one of the largest stores of munitions in Britain with a capacity to hold up to 20,000 tons of high explosives. The WAAC's decision to invite an artist to record this vast cache of arms should be considered in the context of a propaganda campaign devised by the Ministry of Information to demonstrate the might of the British armed forces and the ability of Britain to survive the German threat.

The scene depicted in Bomb Store is of the interior of the mine with bombs stacked up on either side; in the middle there appears to be a standing figure. As with such other oil studies as Bomb Store (Tate T06998), the picture eschews naturalism in favour of expressionism. The paint is applied in a loose manner creating a sense of energy that is heightened by the use of such vivid colours as scarlet, yellow and bright pink. The critic and art historian Richard Cork has suggested that this visual dynamism evokes the latent destructive energy contained within the bombs (Cork 1987, p.239). According to Cork, Bomberg's first hand experience of combat during the First World War (1914-18) made him particularly sensitive to the destruction and misery these weapons would inflict. The subterranean subject matter and absence of jingoism are reminiscent of Bomberg's studies for Sappers at Work (Tate T00319), a commission he received from the Canadian War Memorials Fund in 1917.

Bomberg spent two weeks at RAF Fauld making numerous oil studies and drawings of the bomb store. He completed the paintings once he returned to London and then submitted four drawings with one large and two small paintings to the WAAC. Generally the drawings are descriptive works in which bombs, figures and the store's structure are clearly legible. The paintings, on the other hand, are more abstracted and difficult to read. It is not known if this work was one of the oil studies submitted. Given the WAAC's remit to record the war in Britain and abroad, it is perhaps not surprising that the committee tended to support art that was clearly representational rather than abstracted. Consequently Bomberg's paintings of the store were not acquired but three drawings were. They were not immediately put on display and the WAAC did not commission Bomberg again. Most of the works related to the project were only discovered in Bomberg's home after his death in 1957. RAF Fauld accidentally blew up in 27 November 1944. The three and a half thousand tons of high explosives caused the largest man-made explosion ever to be witnessed on British soil. Sixty-eight people were killed and related tremors were recorded in Southern Europe.

Further reading:
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, New Haven and London 1987, pp.231-47, reproduced p.236, pl.299
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.114-8

Toby Treves
July 2001