Graham Sutherland OM

Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Watercolour, gouache, ink, crayon and graphite on paper on cardboard
Support: 800 × 546 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border 1940


Gouache, ink, crayon and pencil on paper mounted on cardboard 803 x 545 (31 5/8 x 21 7/16)

Inscribed in black ink ‘Sutherland 1940’ bottom centre
Inscribed on back of card in black ink ‘GRAHAM SUTHERLAND | DEVASTATION 1940 (House nr. Cardiff)’ near top edge

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1943-5 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (65)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, Jan.-Feb. 1946 (109), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (109), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (109), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (109), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. (111), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (112), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (112), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (112), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (112)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-Sept.1947
Graham Sutherland: Drawings of Wales, The Prebendal House, Llandriff Cathedral, Cardiff, June 1963, David Hughes Old School Building, Beaumaris, July, St Mary’s Hall, Haverfordwest, Aug., Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, Sept., National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Oct. (24)
Graham Sutherland, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March-May 1967, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, June-July, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Aug.-Sept., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Oct.-Nov. (110, repr.)
Arte della Libertà: Antifascismo, guerra e liberazione in Europa 1925-45, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Nov. 1995-Jan. 1996 (169, repr. p.252)

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Authentic and False in Neo-Romanticism’, Horizon, vol.17, no.99, March 1948, p.206
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.704

Twentieth Century British Watercolours from the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1958, pl.31

The artist has identified this as a depiction of a ruined house close to St Athan aerodrome near Cardiff. Despite the work’s title, this is about thirty miles west of the border between England and Wales. It is one of a series of paintings of bomb-damage in South Wales made by Sutherland in September and October 1940 and was amongst a group of seven gouaches and one oil sent by the artist to the War Artists Advisory Committee on 24 October of that year where it was allocated the reference number LD619.[1] The works on paper were produced under the terms of Sutherland’s contract with the WAAC but the oil - Devastation, 1940: Farmhouse in Wales, 1940 (Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum Service)[2] - was purchased for 35 guineas.

The first of Sutherland’s consecutive series of six month contracts with the WAAC began on 5 June 1940, though he had been on the committee’s list of recommended artists since February. The WAAC had been proposed by Sir Kenneth Clark, who chaired it, and it was thus inevitable that Sutherland - Clark’s protégé - would be amongst the commissioned artists. His first allotted theme was ‘transport by rail of armaments and aeroplanes under net’ though he also made a record of activity at a gun-testing range at Melton Mowbray.[3] However, it was the emotive subject of bomb-damage that was to provide him with his most successful motifs. On 3 August the WAAC secretary suggested that Sutherland become the third artist assigned to record ‘Debris and Damage’ alongside John Armstrong and Harry Morley; R.V. Pitchforth was given a similar task and other artists would produce individual records, notably Muirhead Bone with his St Bride’s and the City after the Fire, 1940 (Imperial War Museum).[4]

There had been little bombing before 11 August 1940 when the German Luftwaffe began the massive air offensive that would become known as the Battle of Britain. Military and industrial sites were targetted and South Wales was one of the areas attacked. However, when Sutherland went to Cardiff on Saturday 31 August he discovered only slight damage but was advised by a local Air Raid Precautions officer that he would find more at Llantwit Major, a coastal town to the west. From there he wrote on 4 September to say he had found two subjects: ‘I have made one very complete drawing and hope to start another tomorrow’.[5] As St Athan is close to Llantwit Major one may speculate that one of these would have been a study for this work or, indeed, the work itself. From Llantwit Major Sutherland proposed to move a little further west to Swansea where he had heard the oil refinery had been attacked. There he found a variety of subjects as he explained shortly before returning to Gloucestershire. After a month in Wales, he wrote,

I have completed a number of studies and sketches for ideas and about four gouache drawings (large - 21” x 31”) and hope to complete two more. The subjects cover quite a wide range - Farm House, Masonic Hall, Hospital, Private House, Workers Houses, plus some drawings of individual and domestic debris. Some of the final drawings, as you see, I have completed within easy reach of the “motif” as the complexity of the subject necessitated constant reference.[6]

Given the coincidence of the dimensions and the evidence of the artist’s earlier letter, it seems likely that this work was one of the large drawings completed close to their source.

While the use of gouache and other media for most of Sutherland’s WAAC work was determined primarily by expediency and the nature of the project, the materials might also be seen to contribute to the mood of the paintings. In early war works such as this he was still developing a technique which found parallels in the work of John Piper and the drawings of Henry Moore. A House on the Welsh Border is painted on smooth, thin white paper which was mounted on 4mm millboard with size or glue so that it wrapped over the top and covered both sides. The support was squared up and the composition drawn out with a soft pencil. The image was thinly painted so that the pencil grid remains visible in places and softer pencil, wax crayon and ink were applied over the gouache. There have been small losses where ink was put onto paint. Though the board shows no sign of deterioration, the paper has discoloured to a ‘light, patchy, fawn colour;[7] folds and tears probably originated when it was stuck down but have worsened with handling.

For obvious reasons ruined buildings became one of the major motifs for British painters of the 1940s. In the cultural milieu of neo-romanticism the theme, like John Piper’s dark records of crumbling stately homes, echoed classic Romantic subjects. It also had a recent precursor in the prewar work of John Armstrong, whose A Farm in Wales, 1940 (National Museum of Wales)[8] is very similar to, if more literal than, Sutherland’s treatment of the same subject. Armstrong’s ruined buildings of the late 1930s sounded a melancholy note at the time of the civil war in Spain and, with their debt to de Chirico, may be seen as expressions of a general pessimism as much as documentary records of destruction. For Sutherland too the broken forms and hollowed spaces of gutted buildings provided a powerful theme which seems all the more poignant for its lack of a human presence. The artist had established metaphor and paraphrase as key terms in the explanation of his metamorphic art and one might see his concentration on the fractured structure of the house as a symbolic reference to death. In certain works, particularly Devastation, 1940: Farmhouse in Wales, he used the strong diagonals of the broken timbers, in contrast to the rectilinear solidity of the building, to emphasise the violence of the scene. In Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border the juxtaposition of the flat walls and rectangles of plain colour with the fragmented angular forms and the curvaceous carpet at the focus of the painting has a similar effect. The use of highlights of strong colour - the bright green door frame, for instance - against the more muted tones of the building might also indicate the artist’s desire to inject the scene with emotion. The inclusion of domestic details such as the fireplace establishes a melancholy mood that is also reminiscent of de Chirico’s townscapes.

Despite the more accurate inscription on the back, this work appears to have been given its current title during the war as it had acquired it by the time of the survey of the WAAC’s work at the Royal Academy in 1945.[9] All of Sutherland’s blitz paintings are titled ‘Devastation’, a term which gives them a more general significance. The use of the same term defines them as a single body of works that stands out from the hundreds of other contributions to the WAAC; it may be that this was the artist’s intention. The title might also reflect the lack of specificity demanded by wartime propaganda: the precise location of bomb-damage could not be revealed and the vagueness might be thought to have contributed to a sense of universal suffering and resistance. Even in the absence of figures, Sutherland seems to have tried to stress the human dimension of the bombing in his choice of subjects, all of which were more domestic or social, rather than official or industrial, buildings. That both he and Armstrong produced images of what seems to be the same farmhouse might suggest that there was a deliberate policy to show how far-reaching the war was and to demonstrate the effect of bombing on private individuals. The implications of this in terms of propaganda were especially urgent at the moment when Sutherland was in Wales as the bombing of civilian targets was then the subject of controversy. Despite pre-war expectations, air raids had initially been aimed at strategic sites - principally airfields, radar installations and communications - but on 24 August the first bombs fell on London. Retaliatory raids on Berlin were used by Hitler to justify a sustained attack on British cities and the ‘London Blitz’ began at five o’clock on 7 September when 337 tons of explosives were dropped on the city. However, Sutherland remained in Wales throughout September and returned to his home in Kent on 9 October where he continued work on his Welsh subjects until the end of the month. He would later produce some of the best known paintings of the destruction in London but not until the new year as he had first to complete the commission for a painting of the artillery range at Melton Mowbray.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Graham Sutherland, letter to E.M. O’R Dickey, secretary to WAAC, 24 Oct. 1940, Imperial War Museum GP/55/57/27
[2] Repr. Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.22, pl.2
[3] Susie and Meirion Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.186
[4] Repr. ibid., p.184
[5] Letter to Dickey, 4 Sept. 1940, IWM GP/55/57/19
[6] Letter to Dickey, 1 Oct. 1940, IWM GP/55/57/23
[7] Tate Gallery conservation files
[8] Repr. John Armstrong, 1893-1973, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London 1975, no.78
[9] National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London 1945

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