Graham Sutherland OM

Devastation, 1941: East End, Wrecked Public House


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Crayon, ink, pastel and gouache on paper on plywood
Support: 673 × 476 mm
frame (Carry Frame): 1030 × 928 × 148 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

This is one of several paintings Sutherland made of the Silvertown area of London’s East End. Close to the docks, this was one of London’s most impoverished areas and suffered some of the most devastating damage. The artist was greatly moved by the destruction and loss of life. He may have chosen the subject of a pub as a symbolic centre of a community. Though he never depicted dead bodies, he seems to use the broken building as a symbol, as its broken rafters suggest ribs.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Devastation, 1941: East End, Wrecked Public House 1941


Gouache, crayon and black Indian ink on paper mounted on plywood 673 x 470 (26 1/2 x 18 1/2)

Inscribed in black ink ‘Sutherland 1941’ b.l.
Inscribed on back of board ‘Devastation 1941 East End. Wrecked Public House Graham Sutherland’

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Temple Newsam, Leeds, July-Sept. 1941 (160, as Devastation 1941: Wrecked Public House)
Moore, Piper, Sutherland, Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts and British Institute of Adult Education exhibition, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec. 1941, City Literature Institute, London, Feb.-March 1942, Harrogate Art Gallery, April-May, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May, Cambridgeshire Technical School, Cambridge, Brighton
?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1942-5 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (111)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7 (as Devastation 1941 - East London), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. 1946 (117), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (118), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (117), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (118), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (117)
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, 1941, East End Pub’)
A Loan Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Finsbury Art Group, Finsbury Town Hall, London, May 1955 (31)
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. (114)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (65)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.704

This stylised depiction of the ruined remains of a pub is one of a series of works derived from the Silvertown area of London’s East End that Sutherland produced between May and July 1941. Wrecked Public House was produced at the same time as perhaps the most famous of this body of works, the ghostly Devastation, 1941: An East End Street (Tate Gallery N05736). On 16 July 1941 the War Artist’s Advisory Committee was told by its chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, that Sutherland had produced five new paintings and that he should be allowed to retain one - the ‘most abstract’ - for a forthcoming exhibition in Leeds that he was to share with Henry Moore and John Piper.[1] As this work was shown in that important display and in the reduced selection shown at Leicester by the British Institute of Adult Education, it is most probably the painting referred to. As well as An East End Street, the others produced at the same time included Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse (Tate Gallery N05737) and Devastation, 1941: East End, Houses of the Poor (destroyed 1942).

Silvertown occupies a strip of land between the River Thames and the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks about five miles east of central London and, in common with most of this part of the capital, it suffered some of the worst bombing of the Blitz. As some of his titles suggest, Sutherland was deeply moved by the destruction and loss of life in the East End - the traditional working class area of London. Before starting work there in May 1941, he had produced a group of pictures of bomb damage in the City - the financial sector around St Paul’s Cathedral. There the buildings were largely commercial and empty of people so that he had been able to contemplate the forms produced by the destruction and still remain distanced from concerns of human life and death. Though he wrote to a friend while making studies in Silvertown, ‘most people are evacuated, but a few refuse to leave the squalid familiarity’,[2] there was still evidence of the massive loss of life that the area had suffered. It was the intangible sense of that fatality, rather than the simple documentary reality of the destruction, that the abstracted forms of his paintings were thought to express.

Sutherland’s choice of a public house as his motif may reflect a desire to stress the community of the area. In his first set of Devastation works - executed in South Wales in 1940 - he had mostly depicted private houses and various social centres, such as another pub and a Masonic Hall. In the 1930s and 1940s the pub remained the primary site for social interaction for urban working men, as demonstrated by Mass Observation’s decision to study them in their social survey of Bolton in 1938. In his depiction of the benighted wreckage of a place dedicated to leisure and revelry the artist might be thought to have injected the work with an extra poignancy and highlighted the assault of the war upon civilian life. Considering it in conjunction with the other works of the series, one may also note that he depicted a range of sites - houses, a street, a pub, a warehouse - with a variety of roles in the life of the area.

No figures appear in his Blitz pictures but Sutherland adapted the forms of the blasted buildings to allude to broken bodies. Here, for example, the roof timbers which dominate the composition suggest a rib-cage, a symbolism made more powerful by the loose rafter that pierces them. Before the war the artist had developed a use of dualistic forms in his paintings of landscape and organic forms which he referred to as ‘paraphrase’. The metamorphic process had produced increasingly anthropomorphic images from natural ‘found objects’. For example, in Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1939-40 (Tate Gallery N05139) the upturned roots suggested a figure that was ‘too breasted’ for one critic.[3] His use of broken buildings to allude to the loss of human life continues that practice.

In a more general sense, the idea of collapse or destruction is suggested by the downward movement of the composition of Wrecked Public House. As in a number of pictures, the broken pitch of the roof creates a sense of plunging and provides a sharply angular shape that adds an aggressive note. The juxtaposition of such diagonal forms and the rigid rectilinearity of the building’s remaining framework accentuates the sense of movement. It is further emphasised by the long strokes of crayon that give the scene an eerie glow, as if illuminated by floodlight. The crumbling brickwork and the murky, textured background establish a feeling of degradation that is highlighted by the contrast with the strong linear elements of the design. The highly varied surface quality is typical of the style which Sutherland developed in his WAAC pictures and which, along with the comparable practices of Henry Moore and John Piper, came to represent a particular wartime British aesthetic.

In suggesting perspectival space and then denying it by emphasising the picture surface Sutherland rooted his work in the external world while signalling his modernist ambitions. The subdued, mottled texture also echoes the subject depicted by suggesting a sense of decay that had previously been discerned in his treatment of landscape. The image is made up of a complex layering of gouache, wax crayon, ink wash and pen drawing. The white drawing paper was mounted with size or glue on to a 3mm plywood panel and squared-up before the composition was drawn out in pencil. Both squaring-up and drawing is visible in places, most particularly in the central area where the paper is bare. A dilute ink wash provided a pale grey ground over which the crayon - principally ochre and a brighter yellow - was drawn. Further washes and gouache were applied, providing the characteristic mottling where they were thrown off by the wax crayon. However, in certain places - towards the right hand side and in the framework of the building at the bottom - the yellow crayon and black gouache appear to have conjoined to create a green tint. It would seem that the crayon was partially rubbed off so that the underlying wash showed through and further washes would not be thrown off. On the building frame, ink had to be applied thickly to minimise the presence of the yellow. In what had become Sutherland’s usual practice, much of the detail of the image was redrawn in ink at the final stage uniting the composition and again emphasising the picture plane. The rendering of the fragments of the roof members to the right of the main triangular form with a combination of cross-hatching and languid curves demonstrates how Sutherland was able to use the persistent influence of Samuel Palmer to suggest the violence and sense of collapse in the scene.

In common with An East End Street and Burnt Paper Warehouse, the colours of Wrecked Public House are largely restricted to black and yellow, though two areas of bright green distinguish it from the others. There is also a flash of blue in the fallen roof, though its faint repetition to the right may suggest that it resulted from the ink leaking into the crayon. Such bold colouring had a precedent in Sutherland’s first depictions of bomb damage, such as Devastation: House in Wales, 1940 (Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum),[4] and may be seen in a smaller version of Wrecked Public House, Devastation: Collapsed Roofs, London Suburbs, 1941 (private collection),[5] in which the green is juxtaposed with ochre and purple. This is one of several versions of this composition - the repetition being the result of Sutherland’s established practice of making studies before the motif and working them up into intermediary and final compositions in the studio. Three related works have been published: both Devastation: Collapsed Roofs, London Suburbs and Devastation: East End, Public House (private collection) have the same composition as the final version, while the third, also entitled Devastation: East End, Public House (private collection), has a horizontal format and shows the same building from another viewpoint so that the other side of the roof is visible.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Minutes of the 51st War Artists Advisory Committee meeting, 16 July 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/72/D
[2] Sutherland, letter to Edward Sackville-West, 25 May 1941, Tate Gallery Archive 926.3
[3] Raymond Mortimer, ‘Notes on Shows’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.19, no.481, 11 May 1940, p.613
[4] Repr. ibid., p.22, pl.2
[5] Repr. Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.68, pl.51 (col.)

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