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T04165 The Artist's Wife and Baby 1937
Oil on canvas 766 × 562 (30 3/16 × 22 1/8)
Presented by Dinora Davies-Rees, the artist's step-daughter 1986
Prov: Lilian Bomberg, the artist's widow (d.1983); bequeathed to Dinora Davies-Rees, the artist's step-daughter, and her daughter Juliet Lamont by whom presented to the Tate Gallery as the gift of Dinora Davies-Rees
Exh: David Bomberg: The Later Years, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Sept–Oct. 1979 (17)
Lit: Richard Cork, David Bomberg, 1987, pp.226–7
‘The Artist's Wife and Baby’ represents Lilian Holt, a painter who had been the artist's companion since 1928 and who later became his wife, holding their child, Diana. Diana had been born in Spain in May 1935 (see following entry on T04890). The work was painted in a house the family were then renting in Lymington Road in Hampstead, London.
In this work the shapes of the two sitters are blocked in with areas of colour. Little detail is provided, though the portrait can be said to capture Lilian Holt's aquiline features. She is shown wearing dark clothes with a flash of deep red on her right lapel or shoulder. Behind her head is an area of yellow, edged on the right with pink, indicative, perhaps, of a light source. Elsewhere, the background is a mottled dark purple. The child has yellow-blonde hair, and clothes that are painted red and brown. The faces and hands of both sitters are painted in yellows, reds and browns. Examination of the canvas suggests that the artist may have painted this composition over an earlier work.
Bomberg painted relatively little following his return from Spain in November 1935. He was depressed by the unfolding tragedy of the civil war that had broken out in Spain, and by his failure to secure commissions or to sell work. A one-man show Recent Paintings of Spain by David Bomberg at the Cooling Galleries in June 1936 was not a success and brought few reviews; and in July 1937 the Trustees of the Tate Gallery turned down four canvases he offered for purchase. In that year he concentrated on portraiture, executing a number of austere and sombre self-portraits (see, for example, Cork 1987, col.pls.42–4). He also painted portraits of his family, in which, Cork (1987, p.227) writes, ‘Bomberg's tragic mood lifted’:
The ‘Portrait of Lilian’ is animated by much of his old vitality and the sculptural strength of her aquiline features is softened by the sensuous brush-marks which play across her face (pl.286). A small portrait of ‘The Baby Diana’ [T03353] is even more tender, defining her sleeping features with a sparseness and delicacy which proves that Bomberg was capable of understatement when the subject demanded it (pl.287). The baby seems cossetted not simply by blankets which enfold her but also by the soft strokes of pigment, caressing her face and tiny outflung hand with their protective love.
In T04165 the blonde-haired Diana is held securely in the firm embrace of her mother and the composition is dominated by the centrally-placed triangular shape formed by Lilian's head and arms. His family was immensely important to Bomberg in this period, providing a vital anchorage of affection and stability. Richard Cork writes:
These were the years of failure, when Bomberg found it impossible to arouse widespread enthusiasm either among the critics or the public. And his own consciousness of his unique standing in the history of English art made him at once embittered and melancholic. Starved of the admiration he so urgently craved, and desperately short of funds, he stopped painting altogether for long periods in the Thirties and Forties; and only his wife's persistent belief in the value of his work tempted him to start again.
(Paintings and Drawings by David Bomberg (1890–1957) and Lilian Holt, exh. cat., Reading
Museum and Art Gallery 1971, [p.4])
Apart from the 1937 portrait of Lilian mentioned above, Bomberg also painted at least one other portrait of her in the same year (repr. Bomberg: An Exhibition of Major Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Fischer Fine Art 1988, p.20, no.11).
T04165 was first exhibited in 1979, and it seems likely that it was not titled until then. A label written by Lilian Bomberg shows that she had considered calling the work ‘Mother and Child’ and ‘Artist's Wife and Child’, finally substituting ‘Baby’ for ‘Child’, although by 1937 Diana was already two, or nearly two, years old.
Of the many portraits of Lilian executed by Bomberg the Tate Gallery owns ‘Lilian Painting David Painting Lilian’, 1929 (T03338) and ‘Lilian’, 1932 (T00318). The Tate Gallery also has a small oil of Diana, apparently asleep, executed in the same year as T04165 (‘The Baby Diana’, 1937, T03353).
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996