Portrait of John Rodker
This portrait depicts Bomberg’s close friend and fellow ‘Whitechapel Boy’, the modernist poet, essayist and publisher John Rodker (1894–1955). Bomberg designed a semi-abstract cover for the writer’s first collection of poems in 1914, based on studies of Rodker’s girlfriend Sonia Cohen performing a dance as a member of Margaret Morris’s famous troupe. Rodker reciprocated with reviews of Bomberg’s art, including one of Racehorses (1913) in The Dial Monthly in May 1914. During the First World War, Rodker went on the run, sheltering with the poet R. C. Trevelyan, but was eventually captured and imprisoned in Dartmoor. He later explored this experience in his account, Memoirs of Other Fronts, published anonymously in 1932. One of his many publishing projects included the short-lived Ovid Press (1919), which brought out work by the modernist poets T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound.
Bomberg painted Rodker’s portrait during a period of critical neglect when he turned largely to himself, his family and close friends as subjects. It was donated to the Ben Uri Collection by the sitter’s daughter, Joan Rodker, in 2008. Bomberg’s realistic approach to Rodker’s portrait illustrates his move away from his earlier sharp-edged Vorticist treatment of the figure and towards a more painterly style. He uses broad, expressive brushstrokes and the pink and green flesh tones of the face, reminiscent of Cézanne, are offset by the rich blue of Rodker’s suit.
Bomberg’s correspondence from the early 1930s (University of Texas at Austin) reveals the enduringly close friendship of the two men, as well as Rodker’s later efforts to obtain financial assistance for Bomberg (including a 1954 reply from 10 Downing Street indicating that the artist had not been awarded a civil list pension). Despite support from a small number of collectors in Britain, Bomberg’s financial anxieties were acute. He remained a prominent member of The London Group, to whom he submitted a revolutionary set of proposals suggesting affiliation with the Anti-Fascist Allied Artists’ International Association (AIA), but this, like his subsequent plans to re-organise the Ben Uri, was emphatically rejected. ‘The Jewish artists are starving,’ he wrote in 1938,‘none of us can work, most of us receive one form of charity or another – we can make a market for ourselves if we organise’. A recently uncovered letter from Ben Uri’s treasurer Cyril J. Ross (24 June 1939) in Ben Uri’s Archive refers to a number of ‘upsetting letters’ from Bomberg. Ross subsequently offered to either make a studio space available for the impecunious artist or to pay (at his own expense) the rent on Bomberg’s existing studio. During the Second World War Bomberg was appointed an Official War Artist but only completed one commission, Underground Bomb Store (1942). Afterwards, he became a highly influential teacher, most notably at the Borough Polytechnic (1945–53), where he formed The Borough Group (1947–9), and the Borough Bottega (1953). Bomberg moved to Spain in 1954 and remained there until shortly before his death in 1957.