The Borough Group was started in 1946. The ideas of the Group arose out of conversations between myself and Bomberg during the years 1944 and 1945. I had immediately recognized that Bomberg's painting, his idea of teaching his practice and his attitude to the creative act were unique in the world and not only in England. It was proved later that Bomberg not only anticipated the American influences of Tachism, Action Painting and the New Expressionism which reached England in the middle fifties, but also that his ideas were more profound and fundamental.
When I first met Bomberg, at the City Literary Institute in 1944, he was teaching drawing to a group of ladies. Bomberg told me that he was also teaching part-time at Dagenham School of Art and that there was a revolt of the students and staff against his unorthodox teaching methods, especially concerning his attitude to drawing and lithography. (It should be noted that before being an art student Bomberg had served his apprenticeship in lithography.) Leading this revolt were two typical but intensely conservative students, Dorothy Mead and Edna Mann. Gradually they began to understand what Bomberg believed in, producing a profound change of heart so that they became fervent disciples of Bomberg. When he was forced to leave Dagenham, they followed him to London where Bomberg introduced them to me and they enrolled at the City Literary Institute. From there, in the following year, 1945, Bomberg secured a part-time teaching job (two days and two evenings a week) at the Borough Polytechnic. He suggested that we all follow him there, which was quite an extraordinary event. We didn't take part in the ordinary curriculum of the art school, but only went along to Bomberg's classes. Thus this nucleus of three people became instrumental in spreading Bomberg's ideas, by recruiting students from other art schools and from the pubs and cafes of Soho and bringing them to the Borough Polytechnic.
To establish the date at which I first became a student of Bomberg and to indicate how much confidence he had in my commitment to art, I can cite a letter of reference which he wrote for me in 1947, when I was applying to rent some accomodation in Maida Vale.
41 Queens Gate Mews,
7th February 1947
I have been asked by my student Clifford Holden for a reference in regard to his tenancy of an unfurnished apartment in your property - 74 Randolph Avenue, Maida Vale.
I am Holden's Art Master at the Borough Polytechnic, Borough Road, S.E.1., which he has been regularly attending part-time for day and evening sessions. I have found him a
very disciplined person both in regard to his studies and reliable in every way inside and outside the Borough Polytechnic.
I esteem Mr. Holden as a student of great promise and as an artist with some achievement already.
We have been known to one another for some two years and during that time he has shown himself well meriting my esteem and confidence in him.
When Bomberg managed to get more part-time work at the Bartlett School of Architecture he would take his students out to various locations and we joined him there as well. The architectural students plus myself, Mead and Mann worked with Bomberg on outdoor sites in the City of London and from casts at the Victoria and Albert Museum. When we worked from the casts in the Victoria and Albert museum I made many drawings of Michelangelo's David. Apart from using the models in the studio, we were also encouraged to go out and draw and paint the architecture nearby. We spent many months in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral as well as at sites along the River Thames. I myself made at least twenty paintings from the roof of the Borough Polytechnic, which now has the grand name of South Bank University. Others working on the roof at that time included Peter Richmond, Edna Mann and Dorothy Mead.
Teaching, like painting, was a total activity for Bomberg. Richard Michelmore, one of his students (and not a painter but an architect), has said that Bomberg spoke of the grandeur of the whole; of the importance of the parts only as an amplification of the complete statement. That may well be, but I think Michelmore completely misunderstood him. It may well be the case in architecture where the amplification can lead to ornamentation, but in the painted image the complete statement needs no amplification. It is complete. The point of completion is the beginning of another statement and therefore of another painting.
Bomberg often simplified the history of art into two approaches; those painters that approached the form, building the parts to the whole and those who worked from the whole to the parts. His sympathies were with the latter. Never did he think in terms of appropriate parts. The parts had a place only in so far as they were an integral ingredient in the structure of the image. Bomberg's teaching did not pursue an artistic method or embrace a complete aesthetic; it was an approach capable of endless development.
He regarded himself as a man breaking virgin soil. He threw in dung instead of artificial fertilizers and not unnaturally a lot of weeds came up together with the strong plants. The question of whether Bomberg stressed drawing from the figure is something of a red herring. Bomberg never actually stressed drawing from the figure as such. For him the human figure and the apple were perhaps the most difficult problems the draughtsman could approach. From 1912 to 1920, Bomberg had made a large number of figure compositions but, later on, he abandoned this type of composition in favour of landscapes, portraits and flower paintings. I can only think of three paintings by Bomberg of the nude figure. We, as students, worked mainly from the model because the model was available and this excited Bomberg because he regarded the human figure as being so complex. Every problem the draughtsman could encounter was contained in the human figure. But it was also contained in the apple.
Bomberg also encouraged us to make small models of clay or wire and work with light shadows so that we simulated dancing figures or figures in procession or bell-ringers or boxers fighting. He suggested that we might take any object and change it into something else in the way he once did using cushions which he changed into a row of sleeping men. He also encouraged us to change the motif; for example, to start off with a still life in a vase and change it into a chicken, change it into two chickens fighting, and then perhaps change it again into two figures embracing in a kiss. He taught us to take a painting which was of little value and turn it upside down, as the Cubists did, and carefully change the value of all the colours - that is to change the colour of each brush stroke, which was a very tedious discipline. What he meant was that by turning the painting you changed the gravitational pull. The forms regained vitality partly because of this and partly because you change the colour of the brush stroke while working towards a new identification of subject.
In working from the model Bomberg encouraged the students to engage in a few tricks which were contrary to the static attitudes of the academics. We would walk around the model and approach from different angles and perspectives. It was recognized that nature was not static and neither should the painter be static. It was in movement that the assessment of the form was possible.
Sometimes the model was spot-lighted as by the sun, sometimes by a hard overall light and sometimes it was completely in the dark. The painting was from light to dark and dark to light. In this way both the model and the landscape were viewed as nature in constant flux and change. The subject changed, the painter himself moved and the light was in constant movement - which was just the opposite from the way Monet worked before 1890. He would go to his motif and, if he became ten minutes late, he would go back in his taxi without putting a mark on the canvas because what he wanted was to establish his landscape in one moment of time. We worked in the exact opposite way. We agreed with Bomberg that the eye was not only a feeble servant of the other senses but a highly specialized servant, dangerous in this specialization and given to lying. Landscape painting was a question of finding an image, not of a camera eye view but a wide angled panorama which could be arrived at through the sense of touch and movement.
Bomberg's contribution was unique. He did not imitate the Cubists or the Fauves but was already critical in his attitude both with words and in paint, just as he became critical of his own attitude between 1914 and 1920 which led to the gradual evolution of his later contributions. These were not diametrically opposed to his earlier ideas, as most critics seemed to think; the seeds of his later period already existed in the earlier time.
Bomberg's roots were through Giotto, Cimabue, Massaccio, Michelangelo and all the way through to Rembrandt and Cezanne, with Piero de la Francesca, Goya, Velasquez and Titian on the side (but still very important). I also tread this path but I have come to the conclusion - a very exciting conclusion - that the later path started with Turner and came to France through Delacroix, Van Gogh, the late Monet and, finally, through Cezanne who was the father to Bomberg as Bomberg was the father to me. This was the path that Bomberg trod and the remnants of the Borough Group have tried to continue along the same path.
It is a sad indictment of the critics and the art historians that they have continued to lump Bomberg with the Vorticists when he continually rejected the advances of Wyndham Lewis and when he never joined their group or contributed to any of their exhibitions. Later, against his will, he was included in the Vorticist show at the Tate in 1956 where he was represented by one picture. Vorticism was a convenient label. The name of 'Vorticism' was invented and
propagated by Wyndham Lewis and it was this label which caught on with the critics because Wyndham Lewis was a much more prolific writer than he was a painter. Nobody in fact knew what Vorticism meant and as Lewis himself said: "Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period."
Superficially Bomberg's early and later periods could hardly appear to be more different. The only person, apart from myself, who seems to have recognized the similarity in approach and his continuing pre-occupation with particular ideas, is the writer Christopher Neve in his book The Unquiet Landscape (Faber & Faber, 1990, pp.149-158). Neve recognized this when he said (p.152): "From the mid-1920's, instead of imposing his will on his surroundings, he began to watch for the humane spirit in the landscape and tried to let it impose on him."
Bomberg was a great teacher and during his lifetime his influence was felt by many people who were never close to him as we were in the Borough Group. There are only two painters - Kossof and Auerbach - who made a reputation since then and who the critics have connected with the name of David Bomberg.
Auerbach remembered his master Bomberg only many years after his death when it was respectable to have known the master. At a tender age Auerbach was already wise enough not to put all his eggs in one basket and opted for the security of the establishment via St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. Later this paid off by helping him to find well paid teaching jobs which is something that Bomberg himself could never achieve.
When compared to my lengthy contact with Bomberg from 1944 to 1951 (when we met during long periods almost every day), both Kossoff and Auerbach had a very short acquaintance - two evenings a week at the Borough, in Kossoff's case only between 1950 and 1952 and in Auerbach's case between 1948 and 1952. This is corroborated by Frances Spalding when she reviewed their exhibition at the Royal College of Art. She points out that the RCA can claim only partial responsibility for the success of their former students and she agrees with Lynda Morris who astutely observes in the catalogue that Kossoff and Auerbach were more influenced by their two evenings a week under Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic than by their seven years as full time students at St. Martins and the RCA.
Bomberg regarded Auerbach as something of a joke, a boy of talent and taste following the fashions of art. I remember Auerbach at the age of 16 and 17 making imitations of Klee and Braque in a very decorative manner. Auerbach has been quoted as saying he was taught by Bomberg but not influenced by his practice. This, of course, is nonsense because it was precisely his practice that Bomberg taught and this was what marked him out from all other teachers. But the influence on Auerbach was not so much Bomberg as the Borough Group.
It was the ideas generated by the Borough Group which influenced people like Kossof and Auerbach but what Kossof and Auerbach did as a result was a misinterpretation of what the Borough Group were doing. One can not connect their work to Bomberg except indirectly through us. Auerbach lifted the idea of the thick paint and reduced it to a gimmick which he continued to follow, not realizing that paintings can be made with thick paint or thin paint. Because the thick paint obviously prevented him from working directly from the landscape, out in the open air and in the nature, he was reduced, like Sickert, to working from the small sketch and the photograph which was the opposite way of working to that of Bomberg. In fact, Auerbach is on record as being a great admirer of Sickert - which is, of course, more his idiom - not forgetting that Bomberg's teacher was Sickert and Bomberg hated him all his life.
In their thickness both Kossof and Auerbach are more related to the work of Bengt Lindstom from Paris or Karel Appel from Belgium. In his images Kossof has the same element of caricature which one finds in the paintings by the American, Wilhelm De Kooning, and both
of them, in their brush strokes, have more in common with the Dane, Asgar Jorn. All of them have been successful and they all lack any relation to the ideas expounded by Bomberg.
In those days, we all played around and waded in an abundance of paint. We painted thick. There were many side issues and romantic ideas generated during the period of the Borough Group. For example, Peter Richmond went even further than Auerbach. Peter had the notion that to be a good artist one should emulate Michelangelo and, therefore, he did not wash and he used the same old paint-covered clothes and a dirty old mac which was his habitual uniform. Both Peter Richmond and I were using thick paint and dropping it on the floor, much to the annoyance of Mr. Patrick, who was the head of the art department at the Borough Polytechnic and who nearly had us thrown out because of this. We were there very much on sufferance because we took no part in the school's curriculum and it was clear to everyone that we were only there to take advantage of the facilities and the model.
The reason why the Borough Group used dark paint was not because of any angst or depression but because we could not afford to buy the vermilions, the yellows, the reds and the wonderful blues - all of which were far too expensive. We also worked on boards and when we had no money we worked on both sides, which was thought by many people to be very strange. But years later, I saw that Raoult had worked watercolours on both sides of the paper and this, of course, once a painter is established, is acceptable. They were exhibited in museums, not hanging on the wall, but sticking out from the wall with glass on both sides of the frame so that you saw two paintings, one on each side.
There were many other painters around Bomberg at the time but they didn't join the Borough Group. People like Edvardo Paolozzi, Joe Tilson, Max and Gustav Metzger, Karl Weschke and many others. But they quickly drifted away, either because the criticism was too severe or because the ideas that they were being introduced to were contrary to the kind of direction they wished to take.
The significance of Bomberg as a teacher was first of all that he taught his practice. Most other teachers taught the practice or the ideas of others - or what they thought was the practice of others. Not having personal contact, they could only guess at the motivation. His interpretation of the history of art was totally different to most of the teachers in the art schools. We both hated that stream through the history of art which includes Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Ingres, David, Messonier and all the academic permutations which persisted in what many termed 'classical art.' Of course there were many other painters, notably in Paris, that taught their practice, for example, Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. In the case of Leger, nearly everyone who came out of his studio merely produced imitation Legers. The difference was that Bomberg didn't try to impose his will on the students. Instead he tried to follow the direction the student was taking and he endeavoured to indicate to the student the character of the idea the student was developing and of which the immature student had no concept of. He was able to perceive an idea which was slowly maturing as the student worked and he was able to assist the student to bring it forward to fruition. He was able to do this because he recognized that a student's creative potential and youthful vitality was frustrated and distorted by his inexperience and his immature critical faculty. The student invariably destroyed his vital image in favour of an image he recognized which by definition was banal and academic.
Bomberg not only taught his practice, but was deeply committed to a collaboration with the student on equal terms. In Bomberg's case, unlike, for example, Rubens or Henry Moore, he, as the master, did not impose an idea on the student who was then required to execute it. It
was much more a fusion of ideas. It was Bomberg's maturity, his long experience and therefore his judgment, which enabled him to recognize an emerging idea produced through the student's blind, frenzied activity. Activity alone will not produce an idea. To begin the journey, you have to have a direction pointed out. You have to be urged to continue the journey and at arrival at one's destination - that is the idea - the situation has to be recognized as an idea and then, of course, the idea - the whole situation - has to be explored and amplified and brought to a fruition.
Most of Bomberg's teaching was in order to stimulate and the stimulation went hand in hand with the attempt to develop one's judgment. He thought that this was the only thing that one should teach. He hardly ever talked about his contemporaries except to disparage them, but his greatest loves of masters in art were Michelangelo and Cezanne, whom he spoke of frequently. Otherwise he would turn outside painting, drawing and sculpture with references to the Bible and Shakespeare. He was very well read and could quote extensively.
Charles Spencer interviewed Bomberg in London during 1953 and in Spain (August, 1955) and he has written, in an article called 'Memories of Bomberg' (London Magazine, 1967, pp. 30-48), that he found Bomberg was unable to express himself in words. This was a typical example of the critic's arrogance and insensitivity to the non-verbal problems of painting. Bomberg's gift for language was demonstrated later, when his war poems were published (in a limited edition of 250 called Poems and Drawings from the First World War by David Bomberg by the Gillian Jason Gallery, London, 1992). It is acknowledged in a note which is attached to 'The Bomberg Papers' (X - A Quarterly Review, Volume One, Number Three, June 1960, pp. 183-190) that "Bomberg left behind him an accumulation of manuscripts and papers of one kind and another which altogether constitute a testament of the highest importance for those interested in the work (and in the mind behind the work) of this painter."
Every painter has difficulties speaking about painting but this does not mean that they are inarticulate. Some of the best writings about art problems are made by painters, for example Michelangelo, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Delacroix and Gaugin. It should be obvious that painters know about painting whereas critics and art historians babble words so effortlessly that one suspects that they hope, by these means, to disguise their ignorance.
Bomberg rarely showed any examples of his own work to his students but, if a special problem came along which he wished to illustrate, he would take me to his studio and bring out a single painting on its own for me to contemplate. He did this deliberately because he didn't want us to imitate his work; he once said that, speaking generally, art endeavours to reveal what is true and therefore needs to be free. Furthermore, all things said regarding art are subject to contradiction and it was these contradictions in Bomberg's teaching which frustrated many students. It was very difficult to find out in which particular direction he was heading. However, once I understood that the contradictions finally revealed a truth, then it was much easier to accept the kind of path he was encouraging us to tread.
It was the critical faculty that Bomberg sought to develop. In teaching it was his main plank. He recognized that it was impossible to teach art and all that one could do was to assist the student to find a direction and, through value judgment, to find himself. He believed that he could bypass the tedious academic approach, so that a student might be able to fulfill his creative potential, without having to first spend the next twenty years trying to forget all that he had learnt.
In 1946 Edna Mann was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but she left after a year because of the opposition to Bomberg's ideas at the College and the consequent conflict of loyalties. Bomberg's enthusiasm was very different to any other teachers' one
encountered. His whole life was art. His was a total commitment to art. He demanded a total loyalty. He recognized that no one wanted to get experience from the experience of others, or to get experience from other people's experiments. He thought that every artist should make his own experiments. The experience defines itself during the act and process of painting. He would explain this as follows. If straight away you recognize the image which you have painted then you can be sure that you are imitating yourself or somebody else. Because you know what it is, it does not come as a surprise or a shock. Therefore it is in the development of the student's critique where the master can most crucially help the student towards the creative act. He strove to bring out the personality. He taught the importance of integrity. To quote Bomberg, he said that "there is inherent in the structure of moral values an integrity which performs but does not think. It will help sustain strength, the seat of which may be located in the mind, it cannot be seen but we know it is there, because it is operative. Truth radiates from it. It becomes fine art when it is integrated in form." He also questioned, as I do, why we tend to accept one idea in art and reject another.
I came across a note which I made in 1946 when I was trying to formulate some words about what the Borough Group was all about. I wrote: "Dissatisfied with the tradition of academic art and unable to subscribe to the purely formal preoccupation's of abstract painting, the Group consider it necessary for the artist to enter into an almost mystical union with the subject of his painting and to perceive with all his being a sense of its mass. In the words of Bomberg, the Group aims 'to make more articulate the spirit in the mass'." However, constructive use of form and colour is not to be neglected, as there can be no worthwhile painting that is not founded on design and structure.
Together our agreed purpose was to establish a closely integrated group to work out the ideas that neither Bomberg himself nor any other single artist could hope to realize in their lifetime. The Group would provide a platform for furthering these ideas and presenting them to the public while, at the same time, it would be a vehicle to establish Bomberg's students as professionals. The foundation members of the Group in 1946 were Cliff Holden, Peter Richmond, Dorothy Mead and Edna Mann. David Bomberg did not want to take an active part in the Group and refused to be a member or to take part in exhibitions, preferring the role of teacher and mentor. I put a lot of time, commitment and effort into trying to arrange exhibitions and in working out our policy and strategy. Because I was the most active in conceiving and fostering the Group, Bomberg proposed that I should be the first President and this was unanimously adopted.
The first statement of our aims was written initially by me but was then subject to changes and editing by Bomberg and the Group, before we all agreed and approved it. The first statement of our aims was printed as a foreword to the catalogue of the Borough Group's first exhibition.
'Approach to Painting'
THE APPROACHES TO PAINTING are as diverse as modes of living. Each age produces a set of habits, manners, and morals which are ever changing and transitory. There is no law except that demanded to maintain social equilibrium.
IN PAINTING there is no law except that there is no painting without form. Form is the language.
MODERN BRITISH PAINTERS, having departed from the pale shadows of the so-called academic tradition, where the smooth surface took precedence over form and was the measure of good painting: on the one hand, impressionism still leaves its mark amongst tonal painters who create a mood which has little relation to the form on which it must depend. On the other hand, there are the followers of the school of Paris whose exquisite textures are superimposed upon weak imitative forms to aid the merely decorative quality. This kind of painting culminates logically in tapestry, which had a functional value in the middle ages, but cannot by its very nature contribute anything unique in the magic language which is painting.
THIS GROUP is experimenting with an idiom which we feel is capable of capturing the deeper and more profound aspects of life. The language in which we are endeavouring to express ourselves is understood only by a very small number of people, and the purpose of this exhibition is to broaden that understanding. We know that this work is anathema in the eyes of contemporary tonal painters because it does not approximate to the refined surface quality of their own paintings. And in its naked structure we are certain our work would be rejected from any exhibition in England.
OUR APPROACH is founded on the belief that there is in nature a truth and a realism which the usual contemporary approach to painting is unable to convey. The very technique and the methods of acquiring that technique seem to be calculated as if on purpose to avoid this deeper and more elemental truth. This approach of our group aims at spanning the great gap between the real experiences of our life and the achievements of contemporary painting. The endeavour in all our work is to express ourselves clearly and sincerely and if we fail it is not because our principles and objects are wrong but that we ourselves require more and more experience.
IT IS HOPED that our work may not only serve to bring to the knowledge of people the wealth and richness of life, but also make them conscious that this depth is in themselves.
The first exhibition was finally arranged in June 1947 at the Archer Gallery, thanks to the kindness and sympathy of Dr. Morris who owned and ran the Gallery. The works shown were mostly rejects from the London Group. Owing to a misunderstanding made by Dr. Morris, Allen Stokes had one work included in this show although he was never at any time a member of the Group. Just before this showing the Group had enlarged to include Lilian Bomberg and Christine Kamienieska. It was decided to hold an annual show at other places whenever and wherever possible.
The next exhibition was held in the same year at the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead, with all the above members taking part with the exception of Kamienieska, who had left the Group after the first Archer show. The second annual exhibition in 1948 was again held at the Archer Gallery. By way of response from the press there was one short passage about us in The Manchester Guardian (Wednesday, 9th June, 1948). This follows on from a review of paintings by Graham Sutherland, which were on show at the Hanover Gallery: "Mr. Sutherland's hot, dry yellows and reds, his pale, fierce mauves, are characteristic and original. Only a real colourist could control such an unruly team. At the Archer Gallery (303, Westbourne Grove) the Borough Group are holding an exhibition. Mr. David Bomberg - the moving spirit - is also a colourist, but of another kind. His two landscapes have a monumental solidity and repose. A
young Manchester artist (Mr. Cliff Holden) exhibits a big, ambitious painting of the battered buildings of Lambeth, a version of the London scene which is rough and heavy, but powerful and interesting as well."
Shortly after this, the Group was involved in an exhibition which was held in the open air at the Victoria Embankment Gardens. The BBC invited Lilian and I to be interviewed as a part of a programme called 'In Town Tonight' which also featured the actor Frederick March and his wife, Florence Desmond. This is how the exhibition was reported by the Manchester Guardian (Saturday, 19th June, 1948).
'Plein Air School'
First, sculpture in Battersea Park. Now, easel painting in the Victoria Embankment Gardens. Artists were not slow to accept the London County Council's invitation to turn up with their work, and by midday all the avaiable space along one side of the main walk was packed. The sun shone generously; flowers of the earth waved gently, unregarded, while these blossomings of imagination came under the scrutiny of the passing crowd.
There were, in fact, styles enough for everyone's taste, from imitations of Mr. Disney to the plastic far-farings of the Borough Group, whose manifesto proclaims, "We care for the realities; they exist in the mind." A non-aesthete shouted to the world, "I must be dumb", and some of the artists, agreeable young people, drew members from the crowd into conversation. All this chit-chat removed English solemnity from the occasion (a show of easel paintings in the open air) and helped to give it a happy atmosphere. The exhibition will continue for a week, if fine weather does.
I wrote to Stephen Bone, who was then the art critic for the Manchester Guardian, to inquire if this article had been written by him. In his reply (postmarked 1st April 1949) he said that he had been ill and so had not written anything for the paper for a while but he encouraged me to write to the editor myself. He asked: "Have you heard about the open-air show that the Hampstead Artists' Council are going to run by the Whitestone Pond (weekends only) starting in June? We are trying to organize some method of booking pitches for this. We have the Borough Council's blessing and all seems to be going ahead. I think it should be an improvement on the Embankment Gardens." However, despite Stephen Bone's invitation, the Borough Group did not have anything to do with any other open air exhibitions after the fiasco at the Embankment Gardens. Nevertheless this was the first exhibition of its kind in London and it was the precursor of the displays which one finds now along the railings beside Hyde Park on the Bayswater Road.
Following criticism from inside and from outside the Group, I resigned as President and suggested that Bomberg might take over that responsibility. At this meeting in 1948, which was chaired by Bomberg, there was a disagreement about the direction the Borough Group should take. Some of us objected to Bomberg bringing in his family and people that even he thought were amateurs. I was certainly supported in my position on this issue by Dorothy Mead. I believe that Peter Richmond agreed with us but he was perhaps less inclined to take a firm stand. However Bomberg took the initiative and so, on his insistence, the Group was enlarged. The members were then as follows; David Bomberg, Lilian Bomberg, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Peter Richmond, Edna Mann, Leslie Marr, Dinora Mendelson, Len Missen and Dorothy Missen.
I would like to record that Minutes were kept of every meeting which took place during the formation and duration of the Borough Group. The Minutes were handed over to Bomberg on his election as President, and he in turn gave them to the elected Secretary. They were subsequently lost without trace and, of course, the Secretary was Dinora, who was a member of the family. So at all future meeting there was no means of referring to earlier resolutions.
The third annual exhibition in 1949 was held at the Arcade Gallery (The Royal Arcade, Bond Street) and here is the statement which we printed with the catalogue.
We have said that our search is towards the spirit in the mass.
Many people have asked us for a further definition.
Words cannot give it; the answer lies in the content of the painting.
That is our purpose.
Our interest lies more in the mass than in the parts;
More in movement than in the static;
More in the plastic than in the decorative.
Identical objects no longer yield the same experience.
Our awareness is both of sensation and direction.
This exhibition was reviewed by Wyndam Lewis in the Listener magazine (10 March, 1949, p.408) and in this review he described what he had seen at the gallery as the work of "rip roaring flaming romantics." Unfortunately Lewis had visited the gallery the day before the opening so what he saw there then was quite different from the exhibition which we presented to the public and officially to the press. His visit had not been observed because the members of the group were all having lunch at the time. On returning from lunch we were ourselves shocked by the degree of sentiment and romanticism evident in the paintings which, for the past several days, we had been struggling unsuccessfully to hang. Had we left it at that then we would have agreed with his assessment. What Lewis did not know was that, in the twenty four hours left before the opening, the members of the Group rushed back to their various studios to make a different selection of paintings to put into the exhibition. We felt that these works were closer to our philosophical intentions and so the difficulties which we had with hanging the exhibition provided us all with a valuable lesson in judgment.
Other than the review which Lewis gave us (which did not, in any case, apply to it) the exhibition in its final form barely received any comment from the art critics, possibly because they were now presented with work which they found less easy to categorize. The one review which treated us favourably was written not by an art critic but by a film critic. This review appeared in a film magazine called The Cinema Studio (2nd March, 1949).
I know there is a strong connection between the world of Art ... speaking in terms of oil paintings, drawings, etcetera ... and the film ... even on its commercial basis ... but when I was invited to go along to look at the third annual exhibition of the work of the Borough Group at the Royal Arcade Gallery in Bond Street yesterday ... I found myself wondering whether the cinema could ever afford to be as inventive and creative as are these young
artists ... I noticed that the prices of the works ... for which terms may be arranged ... were quite out of reach of the average man and woman but their effects aroused in me memories of the good old days of 'abstract' films and the old Avenue Pavilion ... now, alas, a completely uncommercial proposition ... Were it not so ... I feel that many of our budding geniuses in film might find a similar outlet for what the Borough Group describes as satisfying 'the inner need which craves for the unfathomable'. I doubt whether that aim will find understanding beyond a well versed few ... but it might be a good idea to provide the ways and means for letting off steam outside the costly business of making commercial films ... In the meantime ... I have a completely open mind on this subject of advanced painting ... but would like to find someone brave enough to take me into the depths and explain what lies beyond many of those strange designs whose message, if there be one, remains so obscure!
By now Dennis Creffield had been elected to the Group and his work was included in all the subsequent exhibitions. I had met Dennis in 1947 when I was working for one evening a week at the Goldsmiths Community Centre, teaching drawing and painting to children in their early teens. The main purpose of this work was to keep young trouble makers off the streets. However one of the older boys brought Dennis to meet me after school one day. He had told Dennis that he had met a 'real artist' and he thought that Dennis would gain more from my teaching than he could. I, in turn, introduced Dennis to Bomberg and, a year later when he was still only 17, he came to join us.
In the summer of 1949, the Group exhibited in the Junior Common Room of Brasenose College, Oxford. This was arranged for us and so it was not necessary for us to go there, although we were invited. I wrote to the Editor of the Manchester Guardian to voice my approval for this venture on the part of the undergraduates.
'Pictures For Colleges'
Sir, - I was most interested in the article by your University Correspondent on Oxford in your issue May 3, and I would like to draw your attention to another feature of Oxford which is original, healthy and encouraging to artists. During the past few years Worcester and Pembroke have bought several pictures to decorate their common-rooms, by such artists as Henry Moore, Duncan Grant, John Minton and Victor Pasmore, & c. This year Brasenose College decided upon a similar venture and consequently arrangements were made for the showing of a loan exhibition of pictures by members of "The Borough Group" for the duration of the summer term with a view to purchase. Pictures were chosen for suitability of proportions - one from each of the eleven members of the group, - and for the most part prices were adjusted to be within the reach of the college. The whole aspect has a unity and harmony rarely achieved by a mixed show.
It is hoped that other colleges and universities will emulate the example.
Yours, & c., Cliff Holden, 10, Oakhill Park, London, N.W. 3, May 7
In 1949 and 1950 the Group held a number of monthly exhibitions at The Book Worm Gallery (19 Newport Court, Charing Cross Road). The Book Worm Gallery consisted of two or
three rooms above a book shop which was owned by Leslie Marr and he very generously gave the Group use of this space rent free. These exhibitions were not reviewed by any critics from the press but they did generate some public interest. The statement which was written for the second of these exhibitions contrasts with the earlier statements in that it was not initially drafted by me but by Bomberg.
The sympathetic bond which brings this group of painters together, is the consciousness that the enduring reality lies more in the mass than in the parts.
The intense creative functioning of the mind transcends the tangible experience of one's material being. Our discipline is to acquire that skill which will succeed in the expression of ourselves as individuals.
Although Edna Mann is included in the catalogue as one of the contributors to this exhibition it was at around this time that Bomberg forced Edna Mann to resign. His reason for insisting on this was because she was pregnant and he argued that her career as a painter was not compatible with raising a family. He often tried to steer us away from sex, believing that it interfered with our commitment to art. He did not change his mind about sex and babies, even though when his step-daughter, Dinora, married Leslie Marr he said that it was a perfect match and he sang the praises of a marriage made in heaven.
As a result of the exhibitions at the Book Worm Gallery, the Group received some publicity from an article called 'Six Ways of Seeing Her' which was published in the magazine Illustrated (4th June, 1949, pp. 24-25).
To prove how complicated the problem really is, a number of painters calling themselves the "Borough Group" are challenging all orthodox notions of beauty with their "search towards the spirit in the mass." ... They regard their approach "as a means by which mind becomes fluid enough to create forms in the way the fluidity of words can express an idea" ... Here is Mr. Bomberg at hand, once again, with what passes for an explanation in his nebulous world. "We have five senses. If an artist depends only on his sense of sight, his work becomes thin and flat. Reality must be sensed with the entire body, just as we sense gravitation. In applying this to painting - say, to the present model - you must first ask yourself: 'How do I sense this girl?' ... Some feeling from the model comes over to you," Bomberg asserts. "You may be looking at her, but the fluidity of form which is in you creates the design." ... Thus Mr. Bomberg's wife sees the model as "an elegant stream of light," while Cliff Holden has a feeling of "buttresses rearing up in the sky, in the way architecture does." Dinora Mendelson thinks of her simply as "a gipsy girl." ... Says Bomberg: "Unless a man is born with a gift and a desire to create, all his ability and technical dexterity come to nothing. I am a trained artist, but I welcome artists who have not been spoilt by the artificiality of approach that is taught in most schools. Our view is that if we bring the greatest integrity to our work, and are true to ourselves, the matter ends there." In its way "the Group" is well satisfied with itself. There have been several marriages among members - "a natural unifying force of group development" says Bomberg happily. When there is a special case of financial hardship, members make sacrifices or find jobs to help out.
I have ommitted to quote those passages which give the article its gently mocking tone. The photographs which accompanied the article show six members of the Group in the act of painting and in each case these portraits are placed alongside a reproduction of the painting they were working on. In my case the caption reads: "Cliff Holden got from the model "a feeling of buttresses rearing into the sky." He went on to say, "I regard the sense of touch as being more profound and more accurate than the eye.""
At this time there were critics who called us 'dark German expressionists' and one critic in particular, Stephen Bone from the Manchester Guardian (the son of Sir Muirhead Bone), thought that we were trying to leap before we could walk. But it would have been more correct to have made these kind of remarks about those people in the middle sixties that were loosely called the 'Bomberg School'. They were using thick paint and dark paint, with very little concern for the image, the form or the structure.
Owing to the disagreements which had continued ever since Bomberg became President, we came to an general agreement that we should disband the Group. This happened over several months, between the autumn of 1950 and the spring of 1951. Not one of the original members of the Borough Group has since managed to achieve a dealer or a gallery or a patron and I attribute this to a series of unlucky happenings. Our activities during the period from 1946 to 1951 produced the most extraordinary reactions from other painters, critics and art historians. The painters were mostly outraged and the critics mostly treated us as a kind of comic act (the article in Illustrated magazine, if quoted in full, would serve as an example of this). Our achievement as a group was ignored in favour of the Kitchen Sink School and later, of course, in the 50's we were overtaken by the waves from America like the New Expressionists, the Tachists and the Action Painters.
Then with the 'Bomberg School' it was the critics themselves who we felt had double-crossed us and cut out any chance of public recognition for what was a very vital movement. This came about as a result of the influence which Dorothy Mead and Dennis Creffield had when they were studying at the Slade for the diploma which would qualify them to teach. Dorothy enrolled in 1956 and Creffield enrolled one year later in 1957. Although they were both mature artists, who had been exhibiting publicly for over ten years, they enrolled as students because this enabled them to continue their work as painters with the benefits of a grant and use of a model. Unfortunately the influence they had on the impressionable students around them at the school resulted in these students producing a pastiche and a bastardization of Bomberg's ideas. Any black charcoal drawing or any turgid thick paint, no matter what the quality or kind of image, was termed Bombergian and the critics then began to talk about the 'Bomberg School,' which was an invention by the critics and only served to further obliterate any achievement of the original Borough Group, who had by now been completely forgotten.
I still think that what we had achieved is, in a limited way, as important as the ideas created by the Cubists coming out of Cezanne. We also come from Cezanne and have made something which avoided the fallacies of Cubism.
It is also surprising to discover that the Cubists only held three exhibitions whereas the Borough Group held seven exhibitions over the five years it was in existence. The Cubists aroused the critics whereas publicly we were greeted with almost total silence. Nevertheless we generated a lot of anger and opposition from the establishment and many other artists like Keith Vaughan, Coldstream and Pasmore. I have never understood why this hostility should have come from these artists who were in positions of power and who were themselves considered to be successful. It was as if they were threatened by us in some way. I found this hard to understand considering the difficulties which we shared with Bomberg in trying to reach a
public. Despite Dorothy Mead being refused a diploma from the Slade she still considered herself to be a friend of Sir William Coldstream and she would refer to him with affection as 'Uncle Bill.' But, although he could easily have done so, he did not do anything to help in furthering her career. In fact he was instrumental in her being refused the diploma, which effectively denied her access to full-time employment as a teacher within the art school system, and she died without ever having had a one-man show in England.
The power of Bomberg's teaching is shown by the fact that the kind of images which the Borough Group produced were totally different in character to anything that Bomberg had produced, although they were somewhat similar in direction to each other. But the interesting fact is that in the last two or three years before his death he began to draw landscapes very much in the same spirit as those drawings, both of landscape and figures, which were made by the members of the Borough Group. They were totally different to any drawings that Bomberg had made previously. But no art historian or critic has observed this difference in the character and content of Bomberg's later drawings. None of them have dared to suggest that Bomberg might have been influenced by us, rather than the other way around, and yet, if they were to compare the works in question, then they would see that it is so.
Nevertheless we fulfilled Bomberg's intention that the students would given something back to their master. He intended that we should develop ideas between us. After all, philosophers and scientists work together in this way. He always said that he hoped to get back from the students part of what he had put into them. It was the two-way traffic between the idea of the master and idea of the student which provided a stimulus for Bomberg himself. It was his belief that if he gave out stimuli and ideas then, in return, using the students as nature, the students would give back ideas in the exchange. Bomberg provided the stimulus for us to produce our own ideas and this we did through the medium of our collaborative effort as the Borough Group. One might compare it to what the Cubists did in relation to Cezanne. Like the Cubists our work appeared so similar that it was difficult for some people to say who had painted one and not another. We were similar to each other in the way that Picasso, Braque and Gris were similar to each other when they were developing the ideas of Cubism. This was because they were all operating from a common base and it was the same with us. When we painted badly - I don't like to use the word 'badly,' I mean uncreatively - our paintings looked so much alike that you couldn't tell the difference between one and the other. But when one of us had really made that leap into the creative act, then you could see the difference in the idea. So by a continuing exchange and dialogue between us we were evolving an idiom in painting which was totally different to anything which Bomberg had produced up to that time.
Although the Borough Group had disbanded, Mead, Creffield, Richmond and I were all agreed that we wanted to continue to exhibit together. And so, some months later, we decided to organise an exhibition of our work at the Parsons Gallery. We invited Bomberg to join us but he refused. Gus Metzger was responsible for introducing us to the gallery and here is the letter which he sent to Peter Richmond and myself.
2 Studio, 4 Albert Street, London NW1
Dear Peter and Cliff,
Last night I called at 52 in order to sleep there and see Cliff and was told that you were in Yorkshire. I will give you a summary of the position regards available galleries.
On Tuesday I saw Mesens at the London Gallery. He explained that the minimum payment for use of the gallery per month would be £60 or £70. On top of this there would be about £10 rates. He has been trying to discuss this with three other directors, but has not yet seen any of them. Tonight or tomorrow morning he may be able to give me some information. I doubt though that we can rent the gallery as it is on the point of being sold. I have been to the Artist's House and have an appointment on next Wednesday to find out some details from the woman in charge, Mrs. Davie.
The other gallery I have contacted is in the house of Parsons who are paint manufacturers. The house is in Grosvenor Street, 50 yards from where the St. George Gallery used to be. The gallery is on the first floor, about 35 by 15 feet. It has windows on the two 15 foot ends of the room, but it is necessary to light the exhibition with eight adjustable spot-lights fixed on the high ceiling. The walls are in light oakwood and cut up by a certain amount of panels and ornament, but the impression of the place is quite reasonable.
This morning I had an interview with Sir Michael (I forget his surname), a young man who would I think be willing to let us have the gallery if he considered it would draw the public, especially the more wealthy elements. The conditions are as follows. The gallery is rent free, but each exhibition must be in aid of some charity and 25% of the sale of paintings go to this charity. The cost of advertising, invitation cards and catalogue would have to be paid by exhibitors. The last exhibition there was by N. R. Egon, in aid of Greek Children; most of the other exhibitions there were in aid of children and Sir Michael suggested that we might find some children's charity too.
He wanted above all to see our work and requested for two works by each of us. I have made an appointment to bring him the works for Thursday 1st Nov. at 2.30 pm. Will you consider this position and write to me at once what your attitude is regards this matter and, if you should be willing to negotiate with Sir Michael, would you let me know which of your works I should bring and where they are stored. The best solution would be for one or both of you to be in London by Thursday. I would certainly be more satisfied if you could be present at this interview, but if he should turn down the work, you might have wasted your journey. He suggested the show start on the 26th Nov. for 3 weeks. Whatever you decide to do, let me know by Mon or Tues. Also please let me know the address of Dennis and Dorothy. If the London Gallery should be open to us I shall send you a telegram. I am leaving London tomorrow but should return Monday or Tuesday. I am living at the Youth Hostel but address all letters to 2 Studio.
Best Greetings to you and Nora,
It is evident from this letter that Gus Metzger expected to be included in the exhibition, in spite of the fact that he had always refused to be a member of the Borough Group. I will make reference to the reasons why he was not included at a later point in this book. No doubt it was because he felt he had been rejected that, when he became a member of the newly formed Borough Bottega two years later, he told a lot of lies about me and this caused me to be even further alienated from Bomberg.
© Cliff Holden
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