Prunella Clough's journey through England's wastelands is explored at Osborne Samuel
Pigeon-holing Prunella Clough (1919 -1999) has always been difficult. The English painter, born in Chelsea as Cara Clough Taylor, was famously reticent to talk about her work, which progressed from wartime coastal landscape studies through purely abstract works to discerning canvasses that incorporated found objects.
She claimed to have never painted an abstract painting in her life and was, for a time, closely associated with the neo-Romantic painters of the 1930s and 1940s. But her landscapes were always at odds with the mystical evocations of Samuel Palmer explored by Paul Nash, Keith Vaughan and Graham Sutherland.
There are certainly stylistic traces - particularly with the earthy figurative landscapes of Vaughan - but Clough’s interest in gasworks, coke yards, chemical works and the people who toiled in them offered a peculiarly industrial take on their vision English Arcadia.
And rather than the sort of picturesque dilapidation that can be traced from Cozens and Constable to Piper and Nash, Clough’s subject matter actually puts her closer to someone like LS Lowry.
“Her Arcadia was the industrial urban landscape,” says Gordon Samuel, whose Mayfair gallery, Osborne Samuel, is about to present Unconsidered Wastelands, a show of more than 70 of her paintings and works on paper.
“The landscape was the basis of what she began with," he says. "Especially with her paintings of beaches just after the war, which were a bit like John Tunnard. But it wasn’t the beauty of the beach, it was the corrugated metal and the barbed wire, which was there as part of wartime security.
“She was seeing beauty in things that other people walked past. But I’m not sure you can really call her neo-Romantic - it’s something different. Is it some sort of metaphor of the re-emergence of industry in the post war years, of rising from decay? I’m not sure.”
Samuel has pulled together some classic and rarely-seen Cloughs from the post war years that may help you answer this question. They include Lorry with Ladder (1952), Woman in Biscuit Factory (1953), Barrels in a Yard (1954), Woman Minding Machine (1953) and several others with similarly prosaic titles that offer little clue to the elegance and tension they contain.
“I could never get her to talk about it,” adds Samuel, who first met Clough when he was a young gallery assistant at Redfern Gallery in the 1970s. “Gerard (Hastings) knew her quite well and he couldn’t get her to talk about it either - and she was a very social woman, she wasn’t quiet, she would chat.”
Clough’s privileged background was also a source of reticence. “She came from this rather aristocratic Anglo-Irish background, but she was very egalitarian,” says Samuel.
“Sometimes she would write to all of her mates and say, 'I’m having a sale in my studio, come along' - you would go along and she would sell you three works on paper for a hundred quid.”
“Whenever I saw her (she would come into the West End for a little mooch around) she was dressed in sweater and trousers with paint on them. I was just a young gallery assistant at Redfern and she never looked down, or was condescending or patronising; she gave you time.”
Clough's artistic journey began at Chelsea School of Art, where her tutors included Henry Moore, Robert Medley and Ceri Richards. After her commitments during World War Two, when she worked as a cartographer in the American Office of War Information, she attended Camberwell School of Art.
From here, the changing aesthetic of her work gradually shifted from the sparse urban and industrial landscapes and subjects of the 1950s and 1960s (at this time she deigned to describe herself as a landscape painter) to experiments with what might be termed purer abstraction.
In later years she became a magpie-like collector of objets trouve and was famous for her rummaging expeditions in local skips for objects that would clutter her Fulham studio and sometimes make their way into her paintings.
“She would go with Martin Ireland, who was one of her students, to Battersea when the tide was out and forage for found objects that she would take back to her studio in Fulham” says Samuel. “It could be a piece of mesh that she saw something in and she would store it and use it sometime - put it on the canvas and paint through it.
“She did the same in North End Road, in the little trinket shops, buying things that you and I would think is awful stuff. She’d find some kind of beauty in it.”
This sense of mysterious beauty is evident in some of the later paintings on show, such as Cord I (1995), which is a great slab of red oil and sand with a discarded piece of cord at its base, and Fancy Goods Two (1992), which weaves magic out of some her North End Road trinket finds.
But it is the landscapes from the 1960s, hovering between these periods with their widened colour palette, that offer tantalising clues to how her work progressed.
Since her death in 1999, aged 80 (the same year that she was awarded the Jerwood Prize), she has been more widely recognised; a major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2007 brought her works to a wider audience, but this Bruton Street selling exhibition is a welcome opportunity to remind ourselves of her elusive appeal.
“I’ve been involved in buying and selling Clough’s for all of my working life,” says Samuel. “But the market is erratic. It’s rather like Keith Vaughan: there is a very strong following for her work, and I think we will get a very strong turn-out.
“Of course I want to sell, we’ve got an enormous rent to pay, but I want the scholarship to dominate and I think that sets the scene for the quality.”
- Prunella Clough: Unconsidered Wastelands is at Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, London from April 17 until May 16 2015. Visit osbornesamuel.com for more information.
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