Prunella Clough (1919 - 1999): Seeing the World Sideways

The subtle and thoughtful work, both mysterious and commonplace, of this leading modern British artist, was admired by critics and avidly collected. Osborne Samuel Gallery holds numerous works by Clough, paintings and prints, which focus primarily on landscapes and industrial subjects...

Prunella Clough, Deserted Gravel Pit, c.1946, oil on board, signed lower right, 39 x 49 cm. Courtesy Osborne Samuel Ltd.

Prunella Clough was a painter of landscapes and industrial subjects in oils. She trained at Chelsea School of Art 1938- and from 1940-45 worked in clerical and draughtsman's jobs. Between 1946 and 1949 she painted in London and East Anglia and in 1947 she had her first solo exhibition at the Leger Gallery. She has since exhibited at leading London galleries including the Leicester, Grosvenor, New Art Centre and Annely Juda Fine Art, as well as internationally. Her work has been widely shown in group exhibitions and is represented in many public collections including the Tate Gallery. In 1960 a retrospective exhibition was held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London and in 1976 an Arts Council exhibition was held at the Serpentine Gallery.
Her early work was associated with English Neo-Romanticism but it also had affinities with French painting. In the 1950s her paintings of industrial subjects grew out of her concern to reinterpret figure painting free from its traditional associations. In later work, figures disappear and the landscape becomes her main subject. She is concerned with the memory of a scene and is drawn to geometric forms in landscape. Her colours are usually warm and muted, close-toned and strongly textured. Her distillation and selection of forms moves her work towards abstraction whilst retaining the initial reference to landscape. She explains her concerns as a partiality for the trace rather than the direct frontal confrontation. Her later work displays the range of her personal vocabulary and beauty of form and surface.
Two works currently offered by Osborne Samuel Ltd. are here under the spotlight: Barrels in a Yard, circa 1955 and Deserted Gravel Pit, circa 1946.

Prunella Clough, Barrels in a Yard, c.1955, oil on canvas, signed lower right, 47.5 x 35 cm. Courtesy Osborne Samuel Ltd.

During the mid-1950s Clough's renowned interest in industrial themes dominated her subject matter. Working harbours such as Lowestoft, lorry drivers, print making technicians at the London art schools where she taught, and manual workers peopled her compositions. These labourers were however generic, rather than individualistic and were intimately connected with their working environments. The solitary figure in Barrels in a Yard focuses attention at compositional mid-point and acts as guardian of the encased freight being processed in the yard. Further site-specific details are absent, so we could be at a dockyard, a pub, a factory or an unloading bay. The palette is similarly restricted, in this example to a dirty cream and blue-grey scheme that tonally unifies the picture, the sole chromatic highlight provided by the circular acid yellow of one of the barrels. The spatial context is also established through a dark grey foreground column at the right that pushes the rest of the picture back into a distanced atmospheric recess.

It is clear that Clough commonly subjected the thematic material of her art to a stringent formalist criterion; in other words, specific figurative sources were almost afterthoughts - a kind of iconographic camouflage - grafted onto the main abstract idea. The interplay between the mysterious and the overtly commonplace gives a compelling ambiguity to Clough's work, the popularity of which continues to grow with time. Perhaps this appeal is based on Michael Harrison's contention that Clough's, "painting language was not just that of a painter, but also of a wartime cartographer, a graphic designer in her youth and a life-long printmaker".

More of her work can be seen here.