Graham Sutherland OM

Devastation, 1941: An East End Street


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Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Crayon, gouache, ink, graphite and watercolour on paper on hardboard
Support: 648 × 1104 mm
frame (carry frame): 1140 × 1643 × 160 mm
frame: 968 × 1468 × 46 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

The worst of the London Blitz was centred on the East End, and this painting shows a street in the Silvertown area, close to the docks. The area was devastated and Sutherland found it ‘tremendously moving... mysterious and sad’. Though the houses were mostly abandoned, a few people continued to shelter in the wreckage during a period of social unrest. However, figures do not appear in these paintings, the massive loss of life and abiding pathos being suggested by the stillness of the scene and its melancholy colouring.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Devastation, 1941: An East End Street 1941


Ink, watercolour, gouache, crayon and pencil on paper mounted on hardboard
648 x 1140 (25 1/2 x 44 7/8)

Inscribed in black gouache ‘Sutherland 1941’ t.r.
Inscribed on back of board in black ‘DEVASTATION 1941 | CITY, TWISTED GIRDERS | Graham Sutherland’ upside down

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1941-4 (changing display, no cat.)
Contemporary British Art, British Council tour 1945-6, Royal Agricultural Hall, Gezira, Cairo, January 1945 (81), Alexandria, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Rome, Algiers, 1945-6 Oran, Rabat, 1946
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7 (as Devastation in the East End of London), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. 1946 (114), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (115), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (115)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-Sept.1947 (no number, as Devastation, East End)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, Arts Council tour 1947-8, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct.1947, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Oct.-Nov., Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec., Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, Jan.1948, Bristol City Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb. 1948, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth, Feb.-March, Brighton Art Gallery and Museum, March-April, Plymouth City Art Gallery, April-May, Castle Museum, Nottingham, May-June, Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery, June-July, Aberdeen Art Gallery, July-Aug., Salford Art Gallery and Museum, Aug.-Sept. (71)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des beaux arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (55, repr. p.71);
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (93, repr. in col.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (116, repr. p.111)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (66);
Face à l’Histoire, Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Dec. 1996-April 1997 (no number)

Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Authentic and False in Neo-Romanticism’, Horizon, vol.17, no.99, March 1948, p.206
William Gaunt, ‘Profile: Graham Sutherland’, Art Digest, vol.27, no.15, 1 May 1953, p.25
Ronald Alley, ‘The Work of Graham Sutherland by Douglas Cooper’, Burlington Magazine, vol.104, no.710, May 1962, p.220
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.704-5
John Sunderland, Painting in Britain 1525-1975, Oxford 1976, p.245, pl.203
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, pp.23 and 89, repr. p.89, pl.52 (col.)
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, p.49
Angela Weight, ‘Night for Day: The Wartime Nocturne in British Painting 1940-5’ in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.126
Stuart Sillars, British Romantic Art and the Second World War, London 1991, pp.171-2

Eric Newton, War Pictures at the National Gallery, London 1942, [p.9]
Edward Sackville-West, Graham Sutherland, Harmondsworth 1943, pl.21 (col.), rev. ed., 1955, pl.12 (col.)
Stephen Spender, War Pictures by British Artists, Second series No.4: Air Raids, London 1943, pl.4
John Rothenstein, ‘War and the Artist’, Apollo, vol.37, May 1943, p.113
John Rothenstein, ‘Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1944-9, Studio, vol.138, no.678, Sept. 1949, p.49
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.41c
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.36 (col.)
Sutherland: Disegni di guerra, exh. cat., British Council, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1979, pl.33, p.48
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, between pp.64 and 65, pl.31
David Piper, Artists London, London 1982, pp.140-1 (col.)
Mary Rose Beaumont, ‘London at War’, Art and Artists, no.188, May 1982, p.29
Susie & Meirion Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, between pp.198 and 199 (col.)
Christophe Domino, Francis Bacon: ‘Taking Reality by Surprise’, Paris 1996, trans. Ruth Sherman, London & New York 1997, p.24 (col.)
Charles Harrison, ‘England’s Climate’ in Brian Allen (ed.), Studies in British Art 1: Towards a Modern Art World, New Haven and London 1995, p.221, fig.48

Devastation, 1941: An East End Street is one of numerous paintings depicting bomb damage in London which Graham Sutherland produced for the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1941. It was listed as the first of three paintings of the East End that Sutherland submitted to the WAAC on 30 July 1941;[1] it was allocated the number LD1236 and was accompanied by LD1237, Devastation, 1941: East End, A Burnt Paper Warehouse (Tate Gallery N05737), and LD1238, Devastation, 1941: East End, Houses of the Poor (destroyed 1942).

With Henry Moore’s contemporaneous Shelter Drawings and John Piper’s depictions of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, Sutherland’s Blitz paintings were seen as some of the most successful works emanating from the WAAC scheme. They helped to further the artist’s reputation by revealing a new aspect of his work and introducing it to a much wider audience while, more generally, contributing to a persistent image of the Blitz. They were worked in a manner similar to that employed by Moore and Piper and the style might be thought to emulate the process of destruction depicted. The production of all three artists consisted, in the most part, of works on paper executed in a mixture of ink, gouache and crayon resulting in a complex surface effect of modulating texture and depth. The success of the technique would be reflected in its popularity among younger artists during and after the war.

An East End Street is on thin paper laid on to 3/16 in. hardboard with office paste. The board had already sustained damage to its corners and seems to have had fragments of paper attached to it; these may relate to the fact that it had been used for an earlier painting, as the inscription on the back suggests. Small areas of missing paper and a tear, bottom right, probably occurred during mounting. The paper, which is now cream coloured, was trimmed after it was attached to the board and, characteristically, squared up. Though some of the design was drawn in soft pencil or charcoal, much of it also displays a free brush-marked technique. Ink was applied using pen and brush and in places the paper was torn by the vigour of the penwork. Much of the image is of acqueous washes which, in places, were thrown off by the resistant surface of white and yellow crayon. The consequent mottled effect and the emphatic linear element that results from the redrawing of the basic design in ink are the two most obvious characteristics of the style Sutherland shared with Moore and Piper. Some efflorescence has been removed from the black areas in the bottom left hand corner and on the right hand side. In 1979 the leanly painted hardboard mount was found to be losing pigment and was sprayed with a pastel fixative.[2]

Several studies for this work are known. The largest (220 x 400 mm)[3] is similar to the final work in its restriction to yellow, black and white but concentrates on one side of the street and shows the bay-windows, which are so regular and vertical in the Tate work, as more disjointed. Two small drawings on a single sheet also show one side of the street only; one includes a large, animal-like roll of corrugated iron.[4] Two dark sketches use the same steep, central perspective of the final painting.[5] Sutherland recalled different stages in the generation of images: ‘What I did, I did in three stages: notes and drawings “on the spot”; then a sort of “work-out” ... finally the finished works.’[6] The final works were thus always produced at his house in Trottiscliffe, Kent, from where he would travel to London for the day ‘with very spare paraphernalia - a sketchbook, black ink, two or three coloured chalks, a pencil’.[7] It is striking that the final, large version of An East End Street retains this original economy of resources.

On 1 January 1941 Sutherland had begun a new six month commission from the WAAC for paintings on ‘Home Security and Supply subjects’;[8] specifically, it had been agreed in advance that he would record bomb damage in London. He had already produced paintings of several subjects, including a number showing the effect of air raids in South Wales, such as Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border (Tate Gallery N05734). The Blitz had begun in London on 7 September 1940, spread to other conurbations shortly afterwards and continued through the first half of 1941. By May of that year 20,000 Londoners had been killed and 25,000 injured. On the first day of his contract, three days after the massive fire-bomb raid that was dubbed the ‘second fire of London’,[9] Sutherland was requested to stay a few nights in St Paul’s Cathedral from where various officials surveyed the surrounding destruction. He was there on Sunday 12 January, and told Edward Sackville-West a few weeks later that he spent one night a week at the cathedral ‘waiting to record fires’.[10] However, few if any depictions of fire survive, rather his Blitz images concentrate on the calm of its aftermath. In any case, for the first month of his contract Sutherland was largely occupied with designs for Frederick Ashton’s ballet The Wanderer, which opened at London’s New Theatre on 26 January. ‘The ballet has been far more complex and exclusively occupying than I had imagined’, he told Sackville-West ten days later, ‘but it is over now and I am trying to exclude from my mind all impressions, save those connected with devastation and the rendering of it’.[11]

Sutherland focussed initially on the City - the oldest area of London and its commercial and financial centre. He later recounted that the first sector he went to ‘was the big area just north of St Paul’s - I suppose about five acres - which had been almost completely flattened’.[12] On 26 February, Kenneth Clark was able to tell the WAAC that the artist would be sending works in shortly,[13] though the first do not seem to have been submitted until early April.[14] In them Sutherland explored the expressive potential of the extraordinary forms created by the destruction of the large buildings that made up the area. As he explained:

gradually it was borne in on me amid all this destruction how singularly one shape would impinge on another. A lift-shaft, for instance, the only thing left from what had obviously been a very tall building: in the way it had fallen it was like a wounded animal. It wasn’t that these forms looked like animals, but their movements were animal movements ... At the beginning I was a bit shy as to where I went. Later I grew bolder and went inside some of the ruins. I remember a factory for making women’s clothes. All the floors had gone but ... there were machines, their entrails, hanging through the floors, but looking extraordinarily beautiful at the same time.[15]

In such works as Devastation, 1941: City, Twisted Girders (2), 1941 (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull)[16] and Devastation, 1941: City, Ruined Machinery in a Mantle Factory, 1941 (Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum Service)[17] Sutherland imbued the wreckage with bestial forms. This formal adjustment enabled him to suggest the violence and destruction of the scene rather than simply recording the inanimate aftermath. The abstraction of found objects to create a suggestive and emotive image, which he discussed in terms of paraphrase and metamorphosis, was a method that had characterised his pre-war work - in Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate Gallery N06190) for example. It had enabled him to develop what was seen as a modernist landscape through investing it with a human dimension and, in a similar way, he might be thought to have used colour and form to suggest the cost in lives of the bombing as well as the more apparent material damage. As one contemporary critic argued, Sutherland’s Blitz paintings were ‘a tragic art, not so much neglecting the fact, as ... depicting the effect of the facts on [the] imagination’, as a result, ‘a posterity at peace will be able to learn not what we see but what we dimly yet profoundly feel’.[18]

While developing his use of visual metaphor for emotional and dramatic effect, the fact that the ruined buildings of the City had been offices enabled Sutherland to remain detached. This was not the case in the East End, the traditionally working-class sector around London’s docks, to which he then transferred his attention. In May 1941 he was working in the neighbourhood known as Silvertown - close to the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks on the north bank of the River Thames opposite Woolwich. He was not the first artist to visit the area as Edward Ardizzone had worked there soon after the bombing had begun in September 1940; his drawing The Trek to the Shelter - Silvertown, September 1940 was published alongside Sutherland’s work in 1942.[19] Sutherland wrote to the secretary of the WAAC on 16 May, ‘I am now immersing myself in the East End of London and finding it profoundly interesting and moving’.[20] He reiterated the point to Sackville-West ten days later: ‘having done a “City” set I am now working on drawings in the East End of London. It is all tremendously moving - not grand, like the city, but mysterious and sad - but strangely self-contained’.[21]

The artist tried to communicate this sense of melancholic isolation through the composition of An East End Street, in which the treatment of the houses may be compared to his painting of organic forms for expressive purposes. The plunging perspective and wide, empty foreground is suggestive of a theatrical backdrop (though very different to those he produced for The Wanderer). Douglas Cooper has proposed that the use of perspective, which he compared with the early work of de Chirico, enabled Sutherland ‘to suggest vastness, solitude and a sensation of pathetic melancholy, but more particularly help[ed] him to convey the sense of lifelessness and silence which descended on such areas when their inhabitants departed’.[22] The artist described the area at the time: ‘Street after street of skeleton houses receding into the distance. Most people are evacuated, but a few refuse to leave the squalid familiarity.’[23] Similarly, he later recalled the ‘long terraces of houses ... great - surprisingly wide - perspectives of destruction seeming to recede into infinity and the windowless blocks were like sightless eyes.’[24] The pictorial space is made more dramatic by the highlighting of the end-of-terrace house in the distance which provides a focal point while reinforcing the suggestion of further streets. The rhythmic verticals of the bay-windows - typical of London’s Victorian suburbs - aids in the definition of this depth. Some of Sutherland’s studies reveal that these ‘sightless eyes’ were more damaged than they appear in the final version. In reinstating their verticality, the artist underplayed the violence of the scene and established a melancholic tone through the contrast between the relatively unscathed facades and the empty spaces behind them.

Though London had had a period of respite during which it had been able to ‘put its own house in order’,[25] it was while Sutherland was studying Silvertown that the capital suffered its last and most ferocious attack. As one historian says of the night of 10 May:

Fires raged over an unprecedented area ... 1,436 people were killed ... 1,792 Londoners were seriously injured. Westminster Abbey, the Law Courts, the War Office, the Mint and the Tower were hit. A quarter of a million books were burnt in the British Museum ... There were altogether two thousand, two hundred fires ... Next morning ... a third of the streets of Greater London were impassable; 155,000 families were without water, gas or electricity. Every main railway station but one was blocked for weeks. Not for eleven days were the last pumps withdrawn from fires, while exhausted civil defenders and a badly shaken population waited for the blow which must surely finish off the capital; the blow which never came.[26]

Figures are absent from his paintings, but Sutherland’s retrospective account demonstrates his awareness of the loss of human life. Describing the atmosphere as ‘tragic’, he recalled,

in the East End one did think of the hurt to people and there was every evidence of it. ... even a mattress that had been blown out of a house into the middle of the street looked more like a body than a mattress. From butcher’s shops which had been hit the meat spewed on the road, and I remember feeling quite sick when seeing this for the first time because I thought that here was a body which hadn’t been picked up.[27]

In contrast to the twisting forms of his images of the City, the East End paintings’ static quality may be a reflection of the element that he remembered best: ‘the silence, the absolute dead silence, except every now and again a thin tinkle of glass - a noise which reminded me of Debussy.’[28] It might also indicate his greater awareness of the massive fatality for which the bombed-out buildings stood. Whether the artist did not see the victims of the bombing or chose not to depict them - perhaps through a process of self-censorship - is not clear. Unlike Official War Artists of the First World War, those who recorded the bomb-damage do not appear to have been prohibited from showing bodies; in the ‘Blitz’ number of War Pictures by British Artists, an officially published series of booklets, both Clifford Hall’s The Rescue Party[29] and Aftermath by L. Duffy[30] included corpses. Given the allusive nature of his work, it is possible that Sutherland would have thought that to refer to such things metaphorically would have a more universal impact. However, it has been said that, at the end of the war, when recording the ruins of the German rocket launch sites in France, he did encounter and draw fragments of bodies but the results were not exhibited by the WAAC.[31]

The sensitivity of his subjects caused problems for Sutherland. He wrote to Dickey on 16 May to ask for a licence to take photographs in the East End, explaining that ‘it is difficult to draw in some places without raising a sense of resentment in the people’.[32] This incident is indicative of a deeper social tension precipitated by the Blitz which one might associate with the propagandistic function of such works as An East End Street. Despite official insistance of wartime social unity the bombing, at least at first, caused considerable ill-feeling amongst the poor working class of the East End towards the government and the better off to their west. During the first month of air raids, Harold Nicolson (then at the Ministry of Information) had recorded, ‘Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End ... There is much bitterness. It is said that even the King and Queen were booed’.[33]

Though the threat of social unrest had dissipated by May 1941, popular morale was still of concern. Sutherland recalled that, through contact with Clark, he was more aware than many of the crisis at that time: ‘we had an idea of the true gravity of the situation and we knew how near to capitulation we were. The blackness of the atmosphere of war was like the prospect of death and more and more funereal.’[34] Such an atmosphere may be identified in the apparently nocturnal setting of most of his paintings which belies the fact that much of the visual material was gathered during the day. One may speculate on how such works as these contributed to the maintenance of morale. In the permanent display of National War Pictures at the National Gallery, where WAAC paintings appeared soon after submission, Sutherland’s works would have presented an image of material destruction to a largely cultured, middle class audience. In this context, however, the fact that he represented neither the dead and injured nor the poor who lived on amid the squalor takes on a different significance. Their absence might have helped to suggest the same national cohesion as Moore’s drawings, which were equally distanced from the filthy reality of the shelters they seemed to depict. Thus these pictures could aid in the construction of an image of national endurance that was promoted at home and abroad in such displays as Britain at War, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1941. By the time Sutherland’s images of the East End were exhibited the Blitz was largely over since the Germans had turned their attention to the Soviet Union. They could thus be associated with the flurry of apparently realistic representations of the bombing that followed shortly afterwards. In common with booklets like Front Line 1940-1941[35] and such films as Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943) they presented a retrospective account of the destruction and the heroism it occasioned. Despite the absence of death, they thus served to acknowledge the suffering of the capital and its population and became a part of the cultural construction of The Blitz that would provide a focus for national solidarity for the rest of the war and beyond.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Minutes of the 52nd War Artists Advisory Committee meeting, 30 July 1941, Imperial war Museum GP/72/D
[2] Tate Gallery conservation files
[3] Repr. Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, pl.34 (col.)
[4] Repr. ibid., p.55, pl.37
[5] Repr. ibid., p.54, pls.35-6
[6] Quoted in Noble Frankland, ‘Foreword’, Sutherland: The War Drawings, exh. cat., Imperial War Museum, London 1982
[7] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Tassi 1980, p.19
[8] E.M. O’R Dickey, secretary WAAC, letter to Sutherland, 8 Nov. 1940, Imperial War Museum GP/55/57/31
[9] Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-45, London 1969, p.238
[10] Sutherland, letter to Edward Sackville-West, 8 Feb. 1941, Tate Gallery Archive 926.2
[11] Ibid.
[12] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.19
[13] Minutes of the 41st WAAC meeting, 26 Feb. 1941, IWM GP/72/E
[14] Minutes of the 44th WAAC meeting, 9 April 1941, IWM GP/72/E
[15] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.19
[16] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.94, no.92
[17] Repr. ibid., p.93, no.90
[18] Raymond Mortimer, ‘War Pictures’, New Statesman and Nation, 1 June 1941, p.699
[19] Repr. War Pictures by British Artists No.2: Blitz, London 1942, pl.11
[20] Sutherland, letter to Dickey, 16 May 1941, IWM GP/55/57/54
[21] Sutherland, letter to Edward Sackville-West, 24 May 1941, Tate Gallery Archive 926.3
[22] Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.28
[23] Sutherland, letter to Edward Sackville-West, 24 May [1941], TGA 926.3
[24] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.19
[25] Angus Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-45, London 1969, p.234
[26] Calder 1969, p.247
[27] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.19
[28] Ibid., p.19
[29] Repr. War Pictures by British Artists No.2: Blitz, London 1942, pl.24
[30] Repr. ibid., pl.46
[31] Andrew Sinclair, War Like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the Forties, London 1989, p.185
[32] Sutherland, letter 16 May 1941, IWM GP/55/57/54
[33] Quoted in Calder 1969, p.190
[34] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.20
[35] Front Line 1940-1941: The Official Story of the Civil Defence of Britain, HMSO, London 1942

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