David Bomberg (British, 1890-1957) The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda 64 x 76.1 cm. (25 x 30 in.)

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Lot 12AR
David Bomberg
(British, 1890-1957)
The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda 64 x 76.1 cm. (25 x 30 in.)

Sold for £ 790,750 (US$ 1,090,010) inc. premium
David Bomberg (British, 1890-1957)
The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda
signed and dated 'Bomberg 35' (lower left)
oil on canvas
64 x 76.1 cm. (25 x 30 in.)


  • Provenance
    Asa Lingard
    Sale; Jackson-Stops, Cirencester, 1-2 May 1957, lot 149, where purchased by
    Mrs E. C. Bowes, thence by family descent
    Private Collection, U.K.

    London, Tate Gallery, David Bomberg 1890-1957: Paintings And Drawings, 2 March-9 April 1967, cat.no.61 (as Ronda); this exhibition travelled to Hull, Ferens Art Gallery, 22 April-13 May, Manchester, City Art Gallery, 20 May-10 June, Bristol, City Art Gallery, 17 June-8 July, Nottingham, Castle Museum and Art Gallery, 15 July-5 August 1967

    Looking at this prime example of David Bomberg's Spanish paintings is like accepting an irresistible invitation. Here, in 1935, he encouraged viewers to explore the most ancient part of a city which had captivated him immediately when he discovered it a year earlier. Once Bomberg settled in Ronda with his family, 'he painted day after day, without much of a pause' according to his partner Lilian. Enthralled at first by what he described as 'the gorge -- a stupendous rent' splitting the city at its very centre, Bomberg then committed himself to exploring Ronda's awesome and inexhaustible identity.

    Taking a vantage which leads our eyes towards the heart of the old quarter, he reveals the full extent of his fascination. At the bottom of this canvas, two female figures can be detected standing next to a doorway. The older woman stretches out an arm and, with a maternal gesture, clasps the young one beside her. Either waiting for someone to arrive or simply savouring the view, they are the only people detectable in Bomberg's painting. As its title suggests, The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda focuses on buildings rather than their inhabitants.

    In the same year, Bomberg executed a powerful charcoal drawing called Rooftops, Ronda from almost the same viewpoint, disclosing just how fascinated he felt when gazing down at the tight-knit structure of the architecture congregated around the historic cathedral in the distance. This large drawing, included in a major celebratory exhibition of Bomberg's career held at the Daniel Katz Gallery in 2007, testifies to his eloquent draughtsmanship. And the painting, doubtless created soon after he completed the charcoal study, proves that he was eager to capture the old city with brush in hand.

    Although Bomberg remains faithful to Ronda's identity throughout this canvas, there is no hint of topographical dullness anywhere. On the contrary: the marks enlivening his painting have a life of their own. He revels in the dramatic contrast between one side of his composition and the other. On the left, the foreground buildings are relatively dark. Viewed close-to, the freedom of Bomberg's brushstrokes makes us realise how far he is prepared here to push himself towards abstraction. He handles the pigment with surprising forcefulness, giving the thick paint an exemplary sense of dynamism and excitement. Whereas on the right, the tall foreground house asserts its substance even while appearing far paler, as if preparing to dissolve in the dramatic brightness of the light.

    Bomberg, a Londoner who had grown up in the grime of a smoky and polluted East End, was enchanted by the sun's potency in Spain. It transformed his vision of the world, and the potency of light is evident throughout The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda. Wherever we look, the luminosity emanating from the sky plays a crucial role in defining the buildings below. The pale house on the far right is alive with deft and subtle diagonal shadows cast by the roof and the window-sills below. Then suddenly, further along the sloping street leading deep into the city, sunshine hits at least two more houses. Doors and windows are painted with extraordinary liberty as our eyes pursue them down the street. Bomberg clearly relishes treating them as a sequence of energetic, vertical paint-strokes. They take on a near-abstract vivacity and independence. So does the curving surface of the street itself, evoked with generously loaded swipes of his brush. We share the artist's relish as he claims the freedom to summarise the essence of Ronda in such an emancipated way.

    Alongside this emphasis on freewheeling vividness, though, Bomberg also conveys his awareness of the city's vulnerability. As he lets us penetrate the tightly-knit clusters of buildings in the distance, we become aware of their poignant fragility, too. Ronda's allure had seduced him into staying there, but he remained acutely conscious of the ravine plunging downwards at the city's heart. In the most distant part of this painting, the land suddenly rears up on the left and proclaims the presence in Ronda of what Bomberg himself described as 'the amphitheatre of mountains by which it is surrounded.' This city had been erected in an intensely dramatic location, and the sheer strength of its surroundings is asserted in this area of his painting. The mountain looms over the city, forever reminding all its inhabitants of the geological violence which must once have created the immense fissure running through Ronda.

    That is why the near-silhouetted bulk of the cathedral itself makes such an assertive contribution to Bomberg's painting. He gives the spire a thrusting prominence by ensuring that the patch of sky directly behind it is very pale indeed. Later in his life, Bomberg was sufficiently impressed by the architecture of St. Paul's Cathedral in London to make several outstanding drawings of its near-miraculous ability to survive Nazi bombs during the Blitz. He subsequently drew Notre Dame's spires and towers in Paris as well as the side façade of Chartres Cathedral. So although Ronda's cathedral occupies a distant position in Bomberg's painting, he made sure that its impact is assertive. Undisturbed by the restlessness evident in the sky all around, this cathedral presides over Ronda's historic city with unequivocal strength and assurance. The linear elegance of the spire is equally impressive, asserting its poised presence in the air while the secular buildings below almost seem to be jostling with each other in a far more confined space.

    Looking at The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda today makes us realise how much stimulus and sustenance Bomberg gained by painting it. In 1935 he also became a father here, for the first and only time in his life. Lilian recalled that the birth made him 'very worried and frightened all the way through', especially at the alarming moment when 'the baby was born purple and black because she was tangled up with the umbilical cord.' But little Diana survived, and Bomberg then ecstatically declared she was 'the loveliest thing one could wish for.' Ronda occupied such a special place in his life that he returned there in 1954, executing many of his finest late paintings and drawings before a terminal illness prompted his reluctant, gruelling return to England three years later. Seen in this light, The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda can be viewed above all as a celebratory painting, executed with admirable verve by an artist who had fallen in love with Spain.

    We are grateful to Richard Cork for compiling this catalogue entry.

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  • Please note the frame shown is not included with this lot. Please contact the department for further information.
David Bomberg (British, 1890-1957) The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda 64 x 76.1 cm. (25 x 30 in.)
David Bomberg (British, 1890-1957) The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda 64 x 76.1 cm. (25 x 30 in.)
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