David Bomberg

Study for ‘Sappers at Work: A Canadian Tunnelling Company, Hill 60, St Eloi’

c.1918–9

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 3042 x 2438 mm
frame: 2513 x 3113 x 75 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1959
Reference
T00319

Display caption

Bomberg’s painting commemorates an incident in the First World War, in which a company of Canadian soldiers dug tunnels under the German trenches to lay explosives. The operation was in preparation for a surprise assault on the enemy defences at Ypres. This work was a preliminary study for a painting commissioned by the Canadian Government for a War Memorial exhibition. It was criticised at the time as a ‘Futurist abortion’, although Bomberg had compromised the radical abstraction of his earlier Vorticist work for a more representational style.

Gallery label, July 2007

Catalogue entry

T00319 STUDY FOR ‘SAPPERS AT WORK: A CANADIAN TUNNELLING COMPANY. HILL 60, ST ELOI’
c. 1918–19
 
Not inscribed.
Canvas, 119 3/4×96 (304×244).
Purchased from the artist's widow (Grant-in-Aid) 1959.

One of the full-scale studies for the painting commissioned in 1918 by the Canadian Government for the Canadian War Memorial. The first version was rejected as being too Cubist and was therefore not included in the War Memorial exhibition held at the R.A. in October–November 1919. The final version is now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and measures 120×96 inches. In the present version the artist attempted to include more realistic detail to satisfy the requirements of the military authorities. An idea of the successive stages of development towards a more figurative design may be gained from a study of the two early Cubist compositions in colour lent to the Arts Council Bomberg exhibition, 1958 (57), and the pen drawing reproduced in the catalogue (58, repr. pl.2), which, with the pen drawing, N03723, are more naturalistic. Basically T00319 retains the same compositional elements as the two drawings except that the right half is here cut short at the figure carrying a load on his head. The composition is also squarer, more compressed, and there is no suggestion of any great recession into the picture.