Colin Neville, of Silsden, curator of Not Just Hockney (, examines the life and works of acclaimed Harden artist Robert Lee...

HARDEN artist, Robert Lee, witnessed the bombing raids on Dresden in the Second World War and was forced to bury the dead of Freital – a suburb of the city.

Those scenes he saw stayed in his mind all his life and had an impact on his artwork.

Robert was born in 1915 in Bingley and studied art and design at Bradford College of Art.

In 1937, he went on to study at the Royal College of Art and was there at the outbreak of the Second World War.

He was called-up to join the Royal Artillery Signals and after taking part in the North African campaign, was taken prisoner and spent two years at a German working camp at Freital.

The Dresden bombing raid and subsequent firestorm killed between 22,700 and 25,000 people.

In Freital, eight kilometres from Dresden, over 200 German civilians were killed – mostly women and children – when allied bombs, meant for factories near Freital, missed their target and landed on a housing estate.

Robert had to help dig the communal grave and pack the coffins in it.

In 2002, he told a local journalist: “This was the most terrible event of my life, engraved forever in my memory among a mass of horrific experience.

“No amount of showers could wash away the smell, no amount of years can diminish the memories. My visual memory is something which daily inspires me in my work.”

In 1946, on his return home, Robert completed his studies at the Royal College and after a period teaching in London, he returned to Yorkshire.

He taught art at Heckmondwike Grammar School before becoming a lecturer in a number of regional colleges, including principal lecturer in visual arts at the Bingley College of Education.

His own artwork included sculpture, painting, print-making, collage and wooden-framed structures – or ‘assemblages’, as he called them – containing things he had made or found.

His work was widely exhibited, including at Leeds City Art Gallery, Cartwright Hall, Bradford, and Wakefield City Art Gallery.

His subject range was wide, spanning landscape, still-life, abstract, religious subjects and portraits.

But he never forgot his wartime experiences and wanted to present the horror of war to others in his work, including The Deposition, depicting a burial of the dead amidst war.

In 1991 Robert and two friends returned to the Freital communal graveyard, which was now overgrown with trees and flowers.

He was inspired to paint The Resurrection, showing displaced people living among the trees.

A few years later, between 1996-7, in his studio at Harden, he worked on the sculpture An Angel for Dresden – carved in lime wood – which he donated to the Frauenkirche, or St Paul’s of Dresden.

The angel looks on horrified, with tears running down her cheeks, at the destruction of the city.

He said: “The experience of standing quite helpless on the steps of the camp and watching the destruction, of the terrible business of having to live through that time, is what lies behind the angel.”

In 2007, the people of Dresden awarded Robert a medal and certificate in thanks and honour for his work on the Angel.

But by then he was in the last stage of his life in a local nursing home, suffering from dementia, and the medal was accepted on his behalf by his wife Thelma and daughters Vanessa, Joanna and Saskia.

Kirklees Museums and Galleries and the Second World War Experience Centre, in Horsforth, hold examples of his paintings and other works are held in Yorkshire schools collections at Leeds, Hull and Bretton Hall.

In 1991, the Tate Gallery purchased one of his works for its contemporary crafts collection.

Bretton Hall, Wakefield, held a retrospective show of his work, also in 1991.

And in 2009, Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax, staged a major posthumous exhibition of his work.

His work is still highly regarded and can be found in many private collections worldwide.

There is a commemorative website about the life and work of the artist at