William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Munitions Factory  30.5 x 42.4 cm. (12 x 16 5/8 in.)  (Executed in 1940)

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Lot 22AR
William Roberts R.A.
(British, 1895-1980)
Munitions Factory 30.5 x 42.4 cm. (12 x 16 5/8 in.)

Sold for £ 200,250 (US$ 276,035) inc. premium
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980)
Munitions Factory
pencil and watercolour
30.5 x 42.4 cm. (12 x 16 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1940


  • Provenance
    With Hamet Gallery, London, 15 April 1970, where purchased by
    Mr & Mrs J.R. Capstick-Dale
    With Michael Parkin Fine Art, London, where purchased by
    Lady Dugdale

    London, Hamet Gallery, William Roberts: A Retrospective Exhibition, 16 February-13 March 1971, cat.no.54
    London, Michael Parkin Fine Art, William Roberts: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, 17 November–4 December 1976, cat.no.51

    The outbreak of war in September 1939 gave William Roberts a much-needed opportunity. With the turmoil abroad came a great degree of personal upheaval resulting in having to move the family from London to Oxford. However, the conflict brought about new subject matter that favoured his figurative style, which had spent much of the 1930s in the shadow of Abstraction, epitomised by the Unit One movement and spearheaded by Paul Nash and his contemporaries. Roberts had seen some of the bloodiest action during The Great War, toiling in the trenches of Belgium and France with the artillery and carrying out the incredibly dangerous task of repairing communication lines between field batteries. Taken up as an Official War Artist, Roberts produced some outstanding work including the significant oil The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF). However, he is perhaps most admired for the smaller pen and ink drawings and watercolours worked up in the Cubist manner from his Flood Street studio in Chelsea once relieved from active military service. Upon writing to the War Office on the 12th September 1939 in the hope of securing commissions he did so with the benefit of experience, hoping to become one of the few artists to document both conflicts in Europe.

    Roberts was rewarded for his enthusiasm with an assignment to accompany the British Expeditionary Force to France where he would illustrate some of its senior figures. To his detriment the artist failed to appear on the continent, feeling instead that he could produce equally accomplished work in England. Clearly the War Artists' Advisory Committee did not share Roberts' sentiments and owing to his petulance cancelled his contract with almost immediate effect. This unfortunate turn of events scuppered his chances of becoming the fully-fledged war artist he deserved, and it took a grovelling letter to Kenneth Clark, the committee's chairman and owner of his 1929 picture Bath Night (Bolton Museum and Art Gallery), to be reconsidered for even periodic commissions.

    Three instructions from the War Artists' Advisory Committee were to follow with the first, Munitions Factory (1940, City of Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Manchester), capturing the fraught environment at the Woolwich Arsenal. The present work is a detailed preparatory version for that oil painting and is almost identical in composition. Numerous tradesmen including mechanics, welders and plate-cutters scramble to complete work on an anti-aircraft gun assembly line as the country rises to the challenge of competing with German military might. Their manner has the sense of quiet confidence about it as respective trades come together to fulfil the requirements of the nation at a time of emergency. It was a natural subject for Roberts of course who himself had worked in a Tufnell Park munitions factory during 1915 and manages to successfully incorporate his expertise into the composition whilst at the same time giving centre stage to the individual workers.

    The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters (City of Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Manchester) followed in 1942 and echoes Roberts' preoccupation with the everyday man and woman playing their part in the war effort. In stark contrast to the raw industry of Munitions Factory, this painting transports us into the secret world of intelligence gathering where suited men study a large colourful map of London, divided into sectors whilst telephone operators pass on incoming messages. The final work, A Station Scene in Wartime (1942/43) was executed in watercolour showing a busy platform with men, women and children waving goodbye to one another, evoking the personal strains and emotions placed on family life during wartime. An ironic victim of the conflict itself, this work was destroyed in enemy action shortly after completion.

    In June 2018 Bonhams offered William Roberts' Demolition Squad (circa 1941 and sold for £125,000) which, although not an official commission from the War Artists' Advisory Committee, also demonstrated the artist's interest in portraying daily life during the conflict. In this work, the finished oil for which is held in the collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London, the setting is a blitzed building, most likely Christopher Wren's Christ Church Greyfriars in Newgate Street, which was almost totally destroyed in the intense air raid of 29th December 1940.

    We are grateful to David Cleall and Bob Davenport for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Munitions Factory  30.5 x 42.4 cm. (12 x 16 5/8 in.)  (Executed in 1940)
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Munitions Factory  30.5 x 42.4 cm. (12 x 16 5/8 in.)  (Executed in 1940)
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