This finely wrought pencil study, with its complex but controlled composition and mix of fully-conceived and semi-abstract figures, is typical of Roberts's early work, produced while he was a student at the Slade School of Art in London between 1910 and 1913. Its obscure iconography relates to a biblical text from Chapter 24 of the Second Book of Samuel, in which God presents King David with a choice of three punishments for his sin of conducting a census of the people of Israel. Faced with seven years of famine, three months fleeing his enemies or a pestilence lasting three days, David chooses the final punishment, fearing the wrath of man more than the merciful hand of God. After 70,000 people have died in the plague David pleads with God to end the retribution. Commanding His angel to end the pestilence, God orders David to erect to Him an altar on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When David describes to Araunah his purpose, the oxen and threshing-floor are offered to the King as a gift; only when David insists on paying a just price for them is the altar built, its offerings accepted by God and the plague finally eradicated.
Executed in pencil with brown and black ink and grey watercolour washes, Roberts's drawing incorporates much of this complex narrative within a tight diagonal construction. The eye is drawn from the foreground, where the decisive drama of the negotiations between the kneeling Araunah and the aged King takes place, to the activity on the central raised platform of the threshing-ground where men and women labour and dance. One figure points urgently to the towering angel of the Lord who might soon be in their midst. In the distance we are shown the full extent of the plague's destruction, with figures struck down, bodies being carried to gravesides and relatives mourning their lost ones. Climbing over a precipice, the huge figure of the angel begins to move ominously towards the threshing-floor but seems caught in limbo, perhaps at the very moment when God has ordered him to halt the spread of the disease. Roberts differentiates the three scenes not only compositionally but through a brilliant blending of techniques. The lucid and detailed depiction of the faces and gestures of figures in the foreground becomes a looser sketching in the middle ground and, finally, a semi-abstract, almost geometric design in the distance.
Obscure religious subjects such as this were often prescribed by the Slade drawing Professors, Henry Tonks (1862-1937) and Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), as exercises in imaginative figure drawing. Roberts, an accomplished draughtsman who had won a scholarship to the Slade at the age of only fifteen, shared his artistic apprenticeship with a generation of similarly precocious young artists which included David Bomberg (1890-1957), Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949), Mark Gertler (1891-1939), Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) and Paul Nash (1889-1946). Schooled in traditional draughtsmanship, these artists nonetheless eagerly explored more radical styles, often learning as much from one another as they did from their teachers and artistic forebears. 'We were continuously exhorted by Professors Tonks and Steer to study Ingres and Degas,' Roberts later recalled, 'yet how much, too, could we learn from Stanley Spencer and Gertler, drawing at our side!' ('Autobiographical Sketches' in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, Valencia 1990, p.145). Bomberg's cubist work was a particular spur to Roberts's own formal experimentation between 1912 and 1914. Inspired by the bold abstract design of such paintings as Vision of Ezekiel 1912 (Tate T01197), Roberts moved more confidently between the representational and the abstract, as his two 1913 sketches The Return of Ulysses (Tate T01561 and Tate T00878) testify. The confluence of their styles was brief, however, and by the 1920s Roberts had moved towards the monumental, stylised genre compositions for which he would become renowned.
Despite Professor Tonks's misgivings about avant-garde experimentation, he was clearly impressed with Roberts's adventurous work and acquired David Choosing the Three Days' Pestilence. In 1927 he placed the drawing on long term loan to the Tate and in 1992 the work was formally presented to the gallery by Tonks's great-nieces.
Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, London 1976, I, pp.64-5, 67, reproduced p.65
William Roberts ARA, exhibition catalogue, The Arts Council, London 1965