At the start of the Second World War in autumn 1939, the Ministry of Information established the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) with a remit to 'record the war at home and abroad' (quoted in Cork 1987, p.231). Despite repeated applications to the WAAC, David Bomberg waited almost three years to receive a commission, and even then it was given reluctantly in response to a desperately pleading letter to the committee. He may have been rejected initially because of his preference for non-representational, abstract work, or perhaps because of the relative obscurity which he had drifted into since the mid 1920s. In February 1942, however, he was invited to paint an underground bomb store at RAF Fauld in Tutbury near Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. 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. 'I was a bit fearful,' his wife Lilian later remembered, 'when I learned David not only got lost among the bombs, but I knew how curiously he climbed, slithered and slid among and over the piles to get the angle and form of interest' (quoted in Lipke 1967, p.84).
Since the wartime ration of materials for the commission was meagre, Bomberg was forced at times to re-use old canvases or work on unconventional surfaces such as greaseproof paper. For Bomb Store he painted over an existing work entitled Near Zennor, Cornwall. Interestingly, the new picture itself looks much like a landscape, albeit a shattered and disjointed one. As with other oil studies from the series such as Bomb Store (Tate T06672), Bomberg worked in a vibrant, expressionist style. The interior of the mine, with its rows of bombs, ladders, equipment and workmen, is transformed into an explosively energetic scene, incandescent with bursts of pink and yellow. His use of strong diagonal lines and pared-down forms is reminiscent, however, of more controlled earlier works like The Mud Bath 1914 (Tate T00656). He seems to have worked at great speed, applying the paint in a loose, vigorous manner. Yet while his response to the eerie underground setting was exuberant and colourful, it also had a sinister edge. Drawing on his experience in the trenches in the First World War (1914-18), Bomberg's scene is reminiscent of the aftermath of a great battle. The disconnected elements of shadowy bodies, machinery and the cave-like walls of the mine become fused in a gruesome and macabre terrain, with the pinks and flaming oranges acting as ciphers for the crackling of ignited bombs. While the commission sought to demonstrate the might of the British armed forces in the face of the German threat, Bomb Store instead spoke of the vulnerability of all men in the face of the modern horrors of warfare.
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, submitting four drawings with one large and two small paintings to the WAAC. Although the bomb store series is now regarded as a high point in Bomberg's career, the WAAC considered the works too innovative and accepted just three drawings. The committee did not commission Bomberg again, and declined his offer to work on a large mural painting of the same subject.
Lilian Bomberg's concerns about the safety of the mine were proved disastrously prophetic when, on 27 November 1944, RAF Fauld accidentally blew up. The detonation of a single bomb ignited 3500 tons of high explosives, the largest explosion ever recorded on British soil. Sixty-eight people were killed and tremors were felt as far away as Southern Europe.
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, New Haven and London 1987, pp.231-47, reproduced p.236, pl.297
Richard Cork, David Bomberg, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.114-15, reproduced pl.44 in colour
William Lipke, David Bomberg: a critical study of his life and work, London 1967, pp.84-5, reproduced pl.30