Graham Sutherland OM

Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Gouache, pastel, graphite and ink on paper on card
Image: 673 × 1137 mm
frame: 989 × 1465 × 50 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

Sutherland was one of several painters commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to record the devastation of the London Blitz. Having first studied the wrecked buildings in the City, in May 1941 he was sent to the badly bombed docklands area of the East End. In Wapping, close to Tower Bridge, he saw great rolls of paper in the wreckage of a warehouse and made drawings on which this painting was based. Sutherland often focused on such details, which became metaphors for the human damage he was not allowed to depict.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse 1941


Gouache, pastel, pencil and black Indian ink on paper mounted on cardboard
673 x 1136 (26 1/2 x 44 3/4)

Inscribed in black ink ‘Sutherland 1941’ b.r.
Inscribed on back ‘Devastation 1941 East End. Burnt Paper Warehouse Graham Sutherland’

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1941-5 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (959)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. 1946 (115), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (116), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (115), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (116), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (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)
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. (115, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, May-July 1982 (94, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (119, repr. in col. p.113)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (67)
Arte della libertà: Antifascismo, guerra e liberazione in Europa 1925-45, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Nov. 1995-Jan. 1996 (170, repr. p.250)

Art Critic [Keith Vaughan], ‘War Artists and the War’, Penguin New Writing, no.16, March 1943, p.115
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.28
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.705
Trewin Copplestone, Modern Art, New York 1985, p.155, repr.
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists, London 1988, p.125, repr.

Sutherland: Disegni di guerra, exh. cat., British Council, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1979, pl.43, p.57
Clive and Jane Wainwright, ‘Letter from London’, Antiques, vol.121, no.6, June 1982, p.1360
Alan Ross, Colours of War: War Art 1939-45, London 1983, p.43

Painted at his home in Kent from studies made in London’s docklands, Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse was one of three paintings of East End bomb-damage submitted by Sutherland to the War Artists Advisory Committee on 30 July 1941.[1] It was given the WAAC number LD1237, and was accepted by the committee alongside Devastation, 1941: An East End Street, LD1236 (Tate Gallery N05736) and Devastation, 1941: East End, Houses of the Poor, LD1238 (destroyed 1942).

The WAAC commissioned the artist to produce pictures of Home Security and Supply subjects on a series of six month contracts from June 1940. Having painted aircraft and an artillery training camp, in the autumn of that year he made a series of paintings of bombed buildings in South Wales, including Devastation, 1940: A House on the Welsh Border 1940 (Tate Gallery N05734). Shortly after he embarked on those in September, the Blitz began in London and soon spread to other major cities. From 1 January 1941 Sutherland was commmissioned to record bomb-damage in the capital. Though the bombing was widespread, the City - the oldest part of London and its commercial centre - and the East End had borne the brunt of the onslaught. For the first few months of 1941 Sutherland studied the wreckage of the large commercial buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral. In May he turned his attention to the East End - the traditional, largely poverty-stricken working class sector of London - which he found a more moving subject. The area was targetted primarily because of the presence of the docks and associated storage and industry. Sutherland worked in different areas of the East End: while An East End Street derived from a scene in Silvertown, three or four miles east of the City, he told the Tate that the site from which Burnt Paper Warehouse derived was on the river at Wapping, just east of Tower Bridge.[2]

In a retrospective account, Sutherland recalled his routine: ‘During the bombardment of London, on a typical day, I would arrive there from Kent .. with very spare paraphernalia ... and an apparently watertight pass which would take me anywhere within the forbidden area.’[3] Following the practice he had developed before the war, he would make sketches on the spot and work them up in the studio to an intermediary stage and then make the final painting. There are, as a result, several versions of the same composition. While the works that were accepted by the WAAC under the terms of Sutherland’s contract either reverted to the Imperial War Museum at the end of the war or were distributed to museums in Britain and the Commonwealth, over three hundred intermediate drawings from seven sketchbooks were kept by the artist and are now in a private collection in Italy.[4] There are several studies of the rolls of paper which contributed to the formulation of this painting: one double image is inscribed ‘Burnt bales of paper on river bank’[5] and another two were exhibited alongside it at the Imperial War Museum in 1982;[6] these may be the two which were reproduced in Douglas Cooper’s monograph on Sutherland.[7] Of these, the second, smaller image is a squared-up sketch for the composition used in the Tate work.

The economy of colour is typical of Sutherland’s Blitz paintings; the restriction of the palette in Burnt Paper Warehouse to black and yellow was also seen in An East End Street. However, the yellow that suffuses the sky and background is not simply a wash, but an amalgam of different yellow crayons with some areas of green. As well as providing a more varied surface, the changing tones are used to define a horizon on the right hand side. The different media were applied over pencil drawing and a grid in intermingling layers: in some places crayon was drawn over gouache and in others the paint scumbled on top. Ink washes were widely used and much of the original drawing was reinstated at the end by pen. Sutherland here displays his developing sophistication of understanding his materials. For example, while the spiralling ends of the bundles of paper were mostly drawn with ink, the topmost was drawn with wax crayon and a wash applied so that the spiral was defined in negative by the thrown-off ink. The painting is on white drawing paper which had been squared-up and was mounted with a size or glue adhesive to 4mm thick brown cardboard. Poor adhesion caused air bubbles beneath the paper - there are two near the centre, for example. A number of creases and tears were probably also incurred during mounting: there is an especially noticeable tear along the ‘screw’ structure in the lower left hand section and the board is visible through several holes in the largest of the bundles of paper. The pastel/crayon was not fixed and there have been several small losses at the centre and along the left hand and bottom edges.[8]

The majority of Sutherland’s East End paintings, of which Devastation, 1941: An East End Street has become the best known, show the bombed terraced houses and pubs of Silvertown. However, Burnt Paper Warehouse concentrates on a particular detail. It is thus more akin to his studies of damage in the City in which he frequently focussed on a certain motif. In his treatment of them, a single aspect of the remains of a building would take on bestial forms as in Devastation, 1941: City, Twisted Girders (2), 1941 (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull).[9] Thirty years later, he would recall:

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 ... 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.[10]

Though alluding to Devastation, 1941: City, Ruined Machinery in a Mantle Factory, 1941 (Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum Service),[11] the artist’s description is also relevent to Burnt Paper Warehouse. In both works he employed a practice that he had developed in his painting of the 1930s, by which an inanimate form was imbued with anthropomorphic qualities. Sutherland discussed this process in terms of paraphrase and metaphor - his formal abstraction of the original motif investing it with a different significance. Thus, in such works as Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (Tate Gallery N05139) a fallen tree could suggest a sexualised human body and take on a range of allusive meanings. After the war, Robert Melville would say of such forms: ‘There is a duality; they can be themselves and something else at the same time.’[12] In this way, the distorted morphologies of twisted girders and ruined machinery in the pictures of The City might, in a comparable way, be seen as illustrations of the violence of the Blitz and metaphors for the loss of life it brought. Similarly, in this work the recumbent forms of the bundles of paper may be read as substitutes for the dead bodies which are noticeably absent from all of Sutherland’s Devastation paintings. However, Douglas Cooper’s reading of them suggests them to be optimistic symbols of redemption. He saw in the rolls of paper the evocation of ‘the log-piles from which they originally emerged’,[13] implicitly associating them and their destruction with an organic cycle of generation, death and renewal. Cooper’s text was approved by Sutherland and the echoing of formal ambiguities by an ambivalence of meaning may be seen as characteristic of the artist’s work. Such an interpretation was propsed nearer the time, when Keith Vaughan, citing this work, wrote in 1943 that, ‘even when the material, as in some of the blitz drawings, is nothing but the most complete desolation, one gets a feeling that the destruction is not final but that the organic principle of life still remains; that the principles of growth and decay are almost inseparably mixed’.[14]

In common with other WAAC paintings, this work would have been added to the rolling display of war pictures in the National Gallery and, unless circulated in one of several exhibitions that toured Britain and abroad, would have remained there until the end of the war. That such works as Burnt Paper Warehouse were used for state propaganda would suggest that at the time the images were seen to have a positive message. In a general way, the WAAC scheme was intended to demonstrate the continuity of British culture despite the restrictions of the war. This was especially valuable in such international presentations as the exhibition Britain at War, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1941, which included examples of Sutherland’s work. Images of the Blitz also served an internal purpose as symbols of national and social cohesion and resilience; Henry Moore’s ‘Shelter Drawings’ are the most obvious illustration of this but Sutherland’s pictures may also be seen in such a way. This reception was facilitated by the fact that the Blitz was over by the time the works were seen by the world. Though the threat of bombing persisted throughout the war, the massive air-raid of 10 May 1941 marked the last night of the London Blitz, after which time the attention of the German air force was concentrated on the USSR. The Devastation series can thus be associated with various works - in paint, photography and film - which allowed the British to look back upon the Blitz as an ordeal sustained. In 1942, the second volume of the series of booklets War Pictures by British Artists was dedicated to the Blitz, [15] and other, unofficial, works also aided the visual memorialisation of bomb damage, such as John Minton’s depictions of the East End, for example A Town Destroyed, Poplar, 1943 (Imperial War Museum).[16] The publication Front Line 1940-1 presented accounts of the Blitz from different cities alongside dramatic photographs of the bombing and its results and, through its title, associated British citizens with those on active service.[17] Similarly, Humphrey Jennings employed a documentary style in the production of a number of films to produce an apparently realistic image of the Blitz; in his most famous film of the period, Fires Were Started (1943), the action was concentrated on the area of the docks around Wapping from which Burnt Paper Warehouse originated.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Minutes of the 52nd War Artists Advisory Committee meeting, 30 July 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/72/D
[2] Sutherland, letter to Tate Gallery, 27 Oct. 1957, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[3] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.19
[4] Noble Frankland, ‘Foreword’, Sutherland: The War Drawings, exh. cat., Imperial War Museum, London 1982
[5] Repr. Tassi 1980, p.60, pl.42 (col.)
[6] Sutherland: The War Drawings, exh. cat., Imperial War Museum, London 1982, nos.37-9, no repr. known
[7] Devastation - East End - Burnt-out Paper Rolls, 12 7/8 x 18 1/4 in. and Devastation - East End - Burnt-out Paper Rolls, 6 x 9 in., repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pls.40a-b
[8] Tate Gallery conservation files
[9] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.94, no.92
[10] Sutherland 1971/1980, p.19
[11] Repr. ibid., p.93, no.90
[12] Melville 1950, unpaginated
[13] Cooper 1961, p.28
[14] Art Critic [Keith Vaughan], ‘War Artists and the War’, Penguin New Writing, no.16, March 1943, p.115
[15] War Pictures by British Artists No.2: Blitz, London 1942
[16] Repr. David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.62, pl.65
[17] Front Line 1940-1941: The Official Story of the Civil Defence of Britain, HMSO, London 1942

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