Forgotten treasures by Jewish artist David Bomberg could fetch £1million at auction

Fourteen works by neglected painter who was one of a remarkable group of pre-First World War students at the Slade School of Fine Art go under the hammer in October


Fourteen rare paintings by the 20th-century British Jewish artist David Bomberg are to be auctioned in October and could fetch up to £1 million.

Bomberg was neglected during his lifetime but is now regarded as one of the most important and influential British artists of the first half of last century, one of a remarkable group of pre-First World War students at the Slade School of Fine Art that included fellow Jewish artists Mark Gertler and Isaac Rosenberg, known as the Whitechapel Boys.

Born in 1890 into a poor family in London’s East End, he spent his life struggling to make a living, working in the UK, Europe, and Palestine.

During his lifetime he received little critical acclaim or recognition, but was supported by a Jewish engineer and patron Arthur Abraham Stambois, who bought many of his paintings direct from the artist.

He sold them in 1961 to the collector Stanley Mann and his wife Eithne. After her death, they passed to a close family friend who is now selling the works, most of which have never been publicly exhibited before. Estimates range from £3,000 to £300,000 for each painting.

Will Porter, an expert in modern British art from Dreweatts — the auction house selling the paintings, told the JC: “During his lifetime, he was really very unsuccessful in selling. He didn’t really have a main patron or indeed a gallery that supported him.

"He saw some critical acclaim but very little financial reward from it. And, in fact, a lot of his early work sat with his family, and was only really discovered after he died.”

Bomberg served on the Western Front during the First World War.
“He was quite harrowed by what he saw and experienced there,” Mr Porter explained. “His art pre-First World War was influenced by Cubism and Italian futurism, and so it was very much about the celebrating the mechanical age, the future and modernism.

“When he came back, he saw the destruction that can happen through this technology and through this brave new world that was forming and he moved back to a much more traditional painting style.”

The auction paintings, ranging from 1922 to 1948, span much of Bomberg’s career.
There are five portraits, including a 1937 self-portrait; three landscapes from Spain, a country he adored; and two works from a long stay in the early 1920s in British Mandate Palestine and Transjordan.

He was sent there by the Palestinian Foundation Fund to paint and record Jerusalem and the surrounding landscapes. “You must remember I was a poor boy from the East End and had never seen sunlight before,” he recalled.

“He felt that it was something that was a calling and that he would very much like to do, and it was a release from post-war London which was very grey, still reeling from the war,” said Mr Porter.

“That was a massive relief for him, and his art changed quite dramatically.

“In about 1923/24, he visited Petra; he did two trips there. He went via camel and donkey, and he had an armed guard. He travelled with all his paraphernalia, his palettes, and his canvases because he liked, at that stage, to paint in front of the objects.”

The Rock Façade, North-East Wall, Petra (1924) is in the auction collection. It was on loan to the National Gallery 1929-32 and was also in an Arts Council exhibition of Bomberg’s work that toured the UK in 1958.

Bomberg himself commented: “It was a stupendous task to get to Petra, from the start, under the wildest conditions imaginable to do a hugely finished work. In this respect the picture is unique — it has never been attempted before and it is not likely to be tried again by any other artist.”

After four years in Jerusalem, Bomberg returned to the UK in 1927. He made his first trip to Spain in 1929, returning in 1934. Landscapes of the towns of Cuenca and Ronda from this period feature in the collection.

Mr Porter said: “[His art] became much freer and more expressionistic. The emotion of the landscape, and the drama very much comes out more, I think, in the Spanish period pieces.”
Bomberg was forced to leave Spain in 1937 by the Spanish Civil War.

Following the Second World War, he began teaching and influenced some outstanding talents, including Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. He died in 1957 at the age of 66, in poverty and still largely unrecognised.

Mr Porter said the anonymous seller of the collection would have liked them to have gone to a museum.

“But, unfortunately, with the number of works that there were, he couldn’t find the right museum to take them.” Richard Cork, Bomberg’s biographer, said of the opportunity to buy the works: “Seize this moment.

“You feel after a while with these paintings that you are on the spot with Bomberg.”
The auction will take place on 19 October at Dreweatts’ Donnington Priory saleroom, Newbury.

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