BINGLEY-BORN artist Robert Lee saw the Second World War bombing raids on Dresden and was forced to bury the dead of Freital, a suburb of the city. The scenes he witnessed preyed on his his mind all his life.

Colin Neville, who profiles local artists past and present on his website, looks at Robert’s eventful life and career:

“Robert was born in 1915 and studied art and design at Bradford College of Art. In 1937 he went to the Royal College of Art in London. He was called up to join the Royal Artillery Signals and after taking part in the North African campaign spent two years as a prisoner at a German working camp at Freital.

The Dresden bombing raid killed 22,700-25,000 people. In Freital, eight kilometres away, over 200 German civilians were killed, mostly women and children, when allied bombs, meant for factories, missed the target and landed on a housing estate. Robert had to help dig a communal grave and pack coffins in it. In 2002 he told a journalist: “This was the most terrible event of my life, engraved forever in my memory. 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 he completed his studies at the Royal College. After a period teaching in London he returned to Yorkshire to live at Harden. He taught art at Heckmondwike Grammar School before becoming a lecturer in several regional colleges, including Principal Lecturer in Visual Arts at 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’d made or found. His work was widely exhibited at places such as Cartwright Hall. His subject range spanned landscape, still-life, abstract, religious subjects and portraits.

But he never forgot his wartime experiences, and presented the horror of war in paintings such as The Deposition, depicting three soldiers recovering the dead amidst war. In 1991 Robert and two friends returned to the Freital communal graveyard, overgrown with trees and flowers. He was inspired to paint The Resurrection, showing displaced people living among the trees. Between 1996-97 he worked on the sculpture An Angel for Dresden, carved in limewood, which he donated to the Frauenkirche at Dresden. The angel, wide-eyed and horrified, looks at the destruction of the city below. He said: “The experience of standing quite helpless on the steps of the camp and watching the destruction is what lies behind the angel.”

In 2007 Dresden awarded Robert a medal honouring the ‘Angel’. By then he was in a nursing home with dementia, and the medal was accepted by his wife Thelma and daughters Vanessa, Joanna and Saskia.

His paintings are held in Kirklees Museums and Galleries, The Second World War Experience Centre, Horsforth, Yorkshire Schools Collections at Leeds, Hull, and Bretton Hall and the Tate Gallery. His work is still highly regarded and can be found in private collections worldwide.”