Cliff Holden

Documents: 2004


This article was written for the 'Bomberg and Pupils' exhibition catalogue. The exhibition was held at the Boundary Gallery in London, UK, from 19th November to 23rd December 2004.

Bomberg and the Borough Group
John Russell Taylor

It is often said, half-apologetically, of neglected artists that they are "painters' painters". No one could call David Bomberg a neglected artist these days: he is universally recognised as one of the giants of 20th-century British art. But it has by no means always been so. It is hard to remember now for just how much of his life he was definitely a "painters' painter", faded from his early fame and called to mind primarily as a teacher of lively young artists at the then Borough Polytechnic in South London - a job he held, despite some vicissitudes, from 1945 to 1953; before he moved definitively in 1954 to Spain. Bomberg had begun with something of a bang, although never a member, he was associated with that daring and controversial group of avant-gardists, the Vorticists, who had come to prominence in the years immediately preceding the First World War.

He carried a Vorticist taste for angular semi-abstraction into the war, but after a period of intellectual approval and intense financial hardship in the years immediately after, he went to Palestine in 1923 and returned four years later with a portfolio of vivid but surprisingly conventional Palestine landscapes as well as works in his new style : the broad brushwork, subtle yet rich palette and a greater abstraction of landscape.

During the Thirties he worked increasingly on portraits, and landscapes, hardly seen by the public, and after a period (not very successful) as an Official War Artist in the Second World War he found what many regarded as his true vocation, teaching. In fact, contrary to the experience of most artist-teachers, the teaching stimulated rather than inhibited his own creative work, and his art, a new fusion of the angularity derived from his Vorticist beginnings with the passionate interest he had later developed in the representation of landscape, especially the rocky and dramatic setting of Ronda, his final home, had a powerful effect on all his pupils in the Borough.

So much so that in January 1946 with Cliff Holden's initiative, the Borough Group came into being with the express purpose of disseminating knowledge of Bomberg's approach to art and the teaching of art. Bomberg asked for and achieved a special relationship with his students who worked more like apprentices. Bomberg did not work through curriculum. Instead he demanded loyalty and commitment. The group exhibited their own work and in a variety of locations, starting with the Archer Gallery and including the Bookworm bookshop, run by Bomberg's son-in-law and former pupil Leslie Marr. The founder members of the Borough Group were Cliff Holden, Peter Richmond (now Miles Richmond), Dorothy Mead and Edna Mann. When the Group was dissolved in 1951, its idea was rapidly revived in the Bomberg Bottega (1953), with the same general purpose.

The exhibitions of the Bottega included some guest artists felt to be travelling in the same direction, such as Frank Auerbach, who had studied Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic from 1947 until 1953. And even after Bomberg's transplantation to Spain and his beloved Ronda in 1954, this tight-knit group of the faithful continued to spread the word of Bomberg's genius through their own art, with its heavy debt to Bomberg's teaching and example. The only member of the Borough Group who went to Ronda and stayed with him until his death was Miles Richmond.

Bomberg's influence on them manifested itself in two ways. First, there were those, like Lillian Holt and Frank Auerbach, who found their own approaches to portraiture through careful study of Bomberg's practice, which had become with the years increasingly violent and Expressionistic in its forms of expression. Then there were those who, like Auerbach again, and, very obviously, Dennis Creffield, who developed their own vision of architecture and natural landscape through a comprehension of the way Bomberg painted and drew the monumental buildings of England, the rocky outcrops of Ronda.

And then there were a few, like Dorothy Mead, the great discovery of the present exhibition, who painted on first alongside Cliff Holden, another Bomberg pupil, and then very much on her own, well out of the public eye. In these latter days she worked her way out from under the shadow of Bomberg to achieve her own very individual style, where the Expressionistic exaggeration and dark extravagance of the later Bomberg were moderated by a delicacy and refinement which somehow intensified the effect by applying the pressure-cooker principle.

But then, it was clearly part of Bomberg's special genius as a teacher that he had a profound influence on all who studied with him, and yet at the same time in some way liberated them to express themselves with greater richness and freedom. All of his pupils bear the impress of Bomberg's style and personality; none dwindles into a mere imitator. He would not have allowed it.

John Russell Taylor is Art Critic of The Times.

[Page last updated: 6th July 2005]

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