T03600 Recto: MESSIAH 1953
Oil on board 24 × 36 3/8 (715 × 1080)
Recto inscribed ‘Bomberg 53/Michelmore’ b.l.; verso also inscribed ‘Bomberg 53/Michelmore’ b.l.
Presented by Richard Michelmore 1983
Exh: Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by The Borough Bottega and L. Marr and D. Scott, Berkeley Galleries, November–December 1953 (6 in typed handlist available in gallery; works not listed in catalogue); Borough Bottega exhibition, Black Hall, Oxford, January–February 1954 (title of exhibition not known; no catalogue traced); David Bomberg paintings and drawings 1915–1953, The Borough Bottega paintings and drawings by members, Heffer Gallery, Cambridge, May–June 1954 (29)
Both sides of this painting were begun and completed during a single evening's session in one of the life classes taught by Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic. In both pictures the view is from the same position downwards towards the same female model, who is lying on a mattress, with a sheet at lower left.
Richard Michelmore became a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London, in September 1945. At that time Bomberg had just been engaged by the Bartlett to take a class in freehand drawing on Saturday mornings. As there were 120 students in the first year, they attended these classes in groups of twenty, each group going every sixth Saturday. The earliest of these classes of Bomberg's that Michelmore attended were held in the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He owns drawings executed jointly by Bomberg and himself of the Temple, Temple Church, Westminster Bridge and the interior of Westminster Abbey. In 1949, after leaving the Bartlett, Michelmore began to attend Bomberg's life classes held in the evenings at the Borough Polytechnic. He continued to attend them regularly until Bomberg left for Ronda in 1954. From 1953 to 1955 he studied at Kingston Polytechnic where he qualified as an architect.
Michelmore found Bomberg (who always called him ‘Micklemore’) enormously encouraging. Bomberg believed in allowing a student to take a painting quite far according to the student's own conception. On occasion, however, he would take over a student's brushes and work on the painting himself. He did this on both sides of the present work. On the recto (the side in which the parting in the model's hair is the more clearly defined) Bomberg painted the hair, explaining that while local colour was not of concern in itself it could help to identify the image. Bomberg also painted the start of the edging of the white sheet, which he told Michelmore to complete. On the verso, Bomberg drew into the paint with the tip of the brush handle, to outline the form of the figure.
At the end of a painting session, Bomberg would sometimes recommend that a student clean his brushes on unpainted areas of the background in order to give the picture more of the look of a finished work; this partly explains the marks at top right of the recto of the present work. It was not Michelmore's custom to sign his paintings, but at Bomberg's insistence both sides of this work were signed by both artists; Michelmore cannot recall another instance of this happening. Both sides were signed in the life studio on the evening they were painted; Bomberg had to show Michelmore how to paint his signature. Bomberg felt the work should be exhibited, and himself painted the old frame, which Michelmore obtained and which still surrounds the work. Michelmore and other students could not afford artists' materials. In the present work paint powder bought by Michelmore in packets from a builder's ironmonger on Euston Road was mixed, on the palette, with linseed oil.
T03600 has been identified by Bomberg's stepdaughter Mrs Dinora Davies-Rees (letter, 28 June 1986) as being the work exhibited as ‘Messiah’ in 1953 and 1954. In the 1953 exhibition, ‘Messiah’ was listed in the typed handlist as being by both Bomberg and Michelmore, a point which Michelmore confirms makes the identification of T03600 as ‘Messiah’ conclusive. In that list it was priced at 150 guineas. The only two other works so priced, Bomberg's ‘Antigone’ and ‘They Came to a City’, are of similar dimensions. In the catalogue of the 1954 exhibition in Cambridge ‘Messiah’ was listed as being by Bomberg alone. Mrs Davies-Rees writes (ibid.):
why it was listed as being by Bomberg alone at Heffer in 1954 eludes me - an oversight I should have noticed at the time. I can only assume that David chose the title...he was unlikely to have let anyone title a work of his, even in this unique case...I am sure that the title ‘Messiah’ applied to both sides.
The inclusion of ‘Messiah’ in the 1954 exhibition in Oxford is attested by a reference to a painting of this title by Bomberg and Michelmore in a review of the exhibition in the Oxford Mail, 27 January 1954.
Roy Oxlade, another Borough Polytechnic student of Bomberg's, and who owns a drawing by himself of the same model completed by Bomberg, was the first to identify T03600 to the Tate as ‘Messiah’. He wrote (letter, 1 April 1985):
‘Messiah’ is an unusual title I agree, but I'm not sure how much significance should be attached to it. The slumped figure does recall a pieta Christ and Bomberg did occasionally suggest mythological or scriptural titles after paintings were completed.
It is not at present known which side of ‘Messiah’ was exhibited at any of the exhibitions cited above. Dinora Davies-Rees cannot remember, but agrees with Richard Michelmore in attaching significance to the fact that when the work was returned to Michelmore by Lilian Bomberg in about 1974 the side visible in the frame was that now described as the recto, even though this was after the painting had been removed from the frame for cleaning. On the other hand Roy Oxlade is sure that the work exhibited at the exhibition in Cambridge in 1954 was that now described as the verso; while he recalls that side from the 1954 exhibition, he does not think he had ever seen the recto until he saw the work unfitted at the time of its cleaning in 1974.
This entry has been approved by Richard Michelmore.
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986