In February 1942 Bomberg received a commission from the War Artists Advisory Committee 'to make a painting of an underground bomb store for a fee of 25 guineas'. The site chosen was near Burton-on-Trent at RAF Fauld at Tutbury which held over ten thousand tons of high-explosive bombs ninety feet below the surface in gypsum mines. Bomberg had recorded the activities of the subterranean sappers in the First World War and had experienced the brutality and carnage of the trenches and the battlefields at first-hand.
Richard Cork comments on the present composition and other studies, 'Bomberg was so fascinated by the sight of the bombs stacked in the disused mines that he made painting after painting of the eerie scene. His meagre supply of canvas was soon exhausted, so he turned to greaseproof paper in his determination to explore the full implications of his allotted subject. The images he produced there showed how conscious he was of the bombs' destructive purpose, and his work contrasts very favourably with the blandness of the bomb-store painting which Cuthbert Orde had executed for the committee a couple of years before. His mediocre work was viewed favourably and rewarded with further commissions, whereas Bomberg found himself treated with disdain. The committee did not even accept the painting he submitted, preferring to take three of his drawings instead.
His frustration was intense, for the bomb store visit had succeeded in bringing his long period of creative barrenness to an end. The extended sequence of oil-on-paper images he executed, in preparation for a huge Memorial Panel which the committee never allowed him to produce [the present work and Bomb Store: Study for Memorial Panel II] can be counted among the finest of his late works. He described the Panel as 'a memorial to the heroism of that kind of labour. There are some aspects scattered over various sections that could be brought together under one roof so that the painting became representative of the whole activity' (see R. Cork, David Bomberg, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, London, 1988, p. 114).
Richard Cork also discusses the present composition in his monograph on the artist, '... a huge composition, painted on several segments of paper which have been carefully reassembled to comprise the largest picture he had painted since the First World War. By no means as vast as the 'Panel' he envisaged, and entirely lacking the figures who were to have dominated the final composition, it still affords a grand and tantalising idea of what Bomberg intended to achieve. The pigment is manipulated with even greater fluency and freedom than before, splashed on with such verve that it dribbles down in several places as freely as an action painting. Bomberg's vigorous and uninhibited handling gives everything in this immense subterranean interior a disconcerting life of its own. Although a large part of the design is occupied by a heap of bombs, they are far from static. Animated by brushwork which has been applied at white heat, their circular forms appear to be on the point of revolving and whirring like a cluster of catherine wheels about to discharge colour and energy into the space around them. Nor is the analogy with fireworks at all far-fetched. The whole painting is charged with Bomberg's perception of the bombs as volatile and terrifyingly powerful agents of destruction. They seem to be impelled by an urge to dislodge themselves from their racks and roll off towards their self-appointed destinations.
At the moment they are still relatively contained, and held within one distinct area of the store. But they could break loose, and the dark clumps of upright bombs ranged like an informal pallisade beyond would not prevent them from escaping. Indeed, the upright bombs look distinctly vulnerable and unsteady, surrounded as they are by a cavern which already appears on the point of erupting in a mighty conflagration. The fiery scarlets and oranges licking around the foreground of the picture are about to reach the bombs. And the apocalyptic outcome is anticipated in the distance, where a double stretch of railway track is partially enveloped in a flaring, flame-like rush of pink and yellow. This incandescent burst is countered, for the time being at least, by the midnight-blue gloom on the other side of the painting's upper section. But sooner or later this balance of power could easily be disrupted, the fieriness spread and the entire cavern be destroyed in an explosion of colossal magnitude' (see R. Cork, David Bomberg, 1987, loc. cit.).