Paule Vézelay

Barrage Balloon at a Balloon Centre


Paule Vézelay 1892–1984
Charcoal and graphite on paper
Unconfirmed: 474 × 590 mm
Lent from a private collection 2016
On long term loan


Barrage Balloon at a Balloon Centre 1942 is a large-scale charcoal drawing on grey paper that depicts two barrage balloons tethered in a warehouse, their enormous size dwarfing the figures of two workers in the distance. The ovoid forms of the barrage balloons resemble those used in Vézelay’s earlier abstract works such as Forms 1936 (Tate T01911). A slightly earlier wartime drawing also in charcoal, War Damage in Bristol 1941 (Tate L03892), depicts a bombed building in Bristol, its twisted metal girders suspended in space much like the calligraphic lines floating in space that Vézelay had used in earlier abstract works such as Curves and Circles 1930 (Tate T03954). Vézelay had previously used charcoal to draw directly on canvas in works such as Forms 1936.

Although Vézelay was not an official war artist, with the help of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery she obtained a permit from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to draw bomb damage in Bristol and activities at a barrage balloon factory in the city. Vézelay later spoke about how the subject had appealed to her because of the strange beauty of the balloons and the extraordinary shapes they assumed when being inflated and deflated, which she described as like ‘monsters coming to life’ (quoted in Tate Gallery 1983, p.12). She was also interested in the fact that ‘the centre was operated by women as part of the women’s services’ contribution to the war effort’ (ibid.). Having spent much of her career exploring abstract flying forms in space, the subject of wartime flight fascinated her, and she kept newspaper cuttings about parachutists and barrage balloons. A pastel drawing by Vézelay of a barrage balloon being inflated and a group of sketches and cuttings are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Vézelay made several drawings of the bombing of Bristol town centre one of which, Steel Girders, Bristol 1941, was presented to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery by the WAAC. Later recalling her experience she said: ‘There were three alerts a night; my parents had a thick cellar that shook and bounced when the bombs fell, “doodlebugs” that you didn’t hear coming – just the frightful explosion. Incendiaries were dropped one Sunday night; the whole of Bristol’s centre was a fiery mess.’ (Quoted in Pitts-Rembert 1980, p.103.) Vézelay exhibited a group of these drawings described as ‘War Records’ alongside abstract work at her solo show at Alex, Reid and Lefevre, London in 1942, which included two works titled Balloons in the Repair Shed and Steel Girders after Fire which were either the drawings in Tate’s collection, or closely related to them.

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Paule Vézelay, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, pp.12, 24–5.
Paule Vézelay Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, England and Co., London 2004, p.17.

Emma Chambers
June 2016

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