Fence/Plant
Fence/Plant
Fence/Plant
Fence/Plant
PRUNELLA CLOUGH
(British, 1919-1999)
Fence/Plant
Signed 'Clough' (lower right). Executed in 1967
Watercolour and chalk


Sheet height 30 cm., 11 ¾ in., Height 44.5 cm., 17 ½ in.
Floated in a painted, Spanish, frame
Frame Length 68 cm., Height 54 cm.


Contemporary Art Society Market
Seeing the World Sideways, London, Olympia, 2 - 7 March 2004, no.PC-022
New Statesman, 1 March 2004, p.39 (col.ill.)

/>PRUNELLA CLOUGH (British, 1919-1999)

Although critically acclaimed as one of the most interesting British artists of the postwar period and highly respected among her peers, Clough is not well-known amongst the wider public. She devoted her career to finding beauty in unconsidered aspects of the urban and industrial landscape. Clough’s preoccupation with abstract, formal qualities such as composition, colour and texture, which is foregrounded in her later works, also underpinned her earlier, figurative work.

Born in Chelsea, she was the daughter of Eric Clough-Taylor, a published poet. At Chelsea Art School from 1938, she was taught by Ceri Richards, Julian Trevelyan, Robert Medley and Henry Moore. She studied commercial graphic design and sought advice from Graham Sutherland when he came in to use the etching press.

During the second world war, Clough drew charts, maps and graphs for the office of war information (US), bicycling to an office in the basement of Selfridge's. By 1945 she was exhibiting small still-lifes and landscapes at the Redfern gallery, and presented her first solo show at the Leger gallery two years later. She found her subjects by touring the industrial wastelands and bombsites - docks, power stations, factories, scrapyards - for gritty urban paintings. Slowly she focused on the components of the cityscape (literally the nuts and bolts of the picture) as her art floated towards abstraction. But her paintings, drawings and prints never quite lost the shadowy shapes of the recognisable world, as if reality were being placed under a microscope.

From 1946 to 1951 Clough produced etchings, lithographs and paintings of fishermen and dockers in London, East Anglia and the industrial Midlands. During the 1950s, preoccupied with the potential for abstraction in flatness of form, she introduced plant motifs into her urban scenes. Her work was shown at the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Clough was drawn to the Soho pub and club circuit, and, in a 1949 article in Picture Post magazine, was named, among several friends, as a young artist to watch - the others being the Roberts (Colquhoun and MacBryde), Patrick Heron, Leonard Rosoman, Keith Vaughan and John Minton. She was then unfairly bracketed with the neo-romantic movement, when the real link here was social rather than artistic. Her art resisted the allusive and illustrative image, and she owed far more to Braque than to Samuel Palmer.

And yet, in her very distinctive handling of paint (stencilling, spraying, blending and blurring, scraping and scratching out - never repeating and never revealing any clues of technique), and in her delight in the visual evidence all around her, she managed to convey the fabric and the feel of urban life in general and her native London in particular. Into a basic palette of browns, greys and ochre, there might be an iridescent flash of red and green, bringing to mind a plastic bag blowing in a gutter.

Like all great artists, Clough made us look at the world in a new way. A decade ago Patrick Heron wrote: "Her paintings are machines for seeing with. It is impossible, after contemplation of them, to be aware of the street, the yard, the facade, as existing in any formal patterns other than those one's eyes have just enjoyed savouring, as one's gaze crossed and recrossed the endlessly subtle surfaces of her canvases."

After a retrospective at Bryan Robertson's Whitechapel gallery in 1960, Clough exhibited widely - latterly with Annely Juda Fine Art - but she gently rebuffed biographers (destroying personal papers, as had her aunt, the architect and designer Eileen Gray, who had been a mentor and ally) and rejected major overviews of her career.

Towards the end of her life she became regarded largely as an abstractionist, but her work always retained a figurative base, as if form had been filtered through memory. In the late 1960s Clough's style became even freer in terms of colour and scale, but it still revealed her continuing fascination with the ‘edginess' of form, the sudden intrusion of hard shapes into softer areas. Later pictures describe colourful objects in shallow space with playful tonal gradations that suggest movement.

Moves for a retrospective at the Tate received no encouragement from the artist, but she did allow substantial surveys at the Camden arts centre (1996) and Kettle's Yard, Cambridge (1999). For the former, Clough asked Judith Collins to pen only a short text - "anything you don't write, we can fill in with drawings". In Cambridge, she advised Michael Harrison not to bother with a catalogue (guidance which, thankfully, was ignored).

Prunella Clough toiled hard to erase what she saw as unnecessary elegance in her art - a characteristic which she believed had ruled out wider international recognition - and, in this, she never entirely succeeded. Somehow, every mark she made on paper or canvas appeared beautiful.

Teaching at Chelsea and then, for more than 30 years, at Wimbledon school of art, she was painting - still stretching her own canvases - and printing almost to the end.

One of her last acts was to give the prize money from the 1999 Jerwood award to other artists, adding to earlier scholarships she had instituted anonymously. Prunella Clough died on December 26th 1999

Prunella Clough: 1919-1999: seeing the world sideways
Apollo, Feb 2004 by Angus Stewart

That Prunella Clough is not a household name is surprising. Since the forties, the critics have lavished praise on her work, usually writing at length, for her art requires thought and understanding. Her lack of fame was on her part deliberate. She guarded her privacy in public and in private. The critic Richard Dorment wrote: 'Clough doesn't fit into the museum or gallery culture that produces celebrity artists such as Bridget Riley, Lucian Freud and Howard Hodgkin. In part this is because Clough puts so little of her own ego into her pictures.'

Dorment recognised the artist is one among the giants of her time and is right to suggest that Miss Clough was not suitable to be a celebrity. However, to say that her ego, her conscious thinking is little in her work is misleading. Her work is fascinating because it is permeated by the artist's subtlety of thoughtful visual exploration. Not all, but many of the most expressive paintings are drenched, even scarred, with the remains of second, third and fourth thoughts. The pentimenti, the multiple corrections, are evidence that an image which appears spontaneous was achieved via a series of minor and major adjustments. Often a work's sense of immediacy is deceptive; the painstaking development, altering and placing of marks, the almost haphazard and fanciful positioning of colour, may suggest the random, but contrary-wise it proves lengthy deliberation, repentance and finally acceptance or resignation.

All artists feed on themselves, and most, like the Irish poet George Darley (1795-1846) are introspective, self-doubting and reflective. "I am indeed suspicious, not of you but (of) myself: most sceptical of my right to be called "poet", and therefore I desire confirmation of it from others.' It is well that those who 'love' art bear this disquiet in mind when looking, for to take from the artist the tremor of their mortality, is to leave them inhuman. Darley again: 'You may ask could I not sustain myself on the strength of my own approbation? But it might be only my vanity, not my genius that was strong ... Have not I too, had some, however few, approvers? Why yes, but their chorus in my praise was as small as the voice of my conscience, and, like it, served for little else than to keep me uneasy.'

Miss Clough's uncertainty is the magic in her pictures; for they have within and about them the essence of clouds shimmering across the heavens. Looking provides few clues to a certain understanding; what identifiable signs are there are often simplistic. There is mystery in her purpose; within the mundane, occluded by a Dickensian mist which softens the outlines, and while feeding the appetite, is a mystery that disallows a concise or definitive analysis. The onlooker can imagine his or her own reasoning but the artist's is secret--the pictures are there to be seen but not to be possessed. Miss Clough's privacy was legendary; she did not wear her heart on her sleeve, but she did put her heart into her painting.

Although Prunella Clough was active in the world, teaching and painting; she was a person apart: her works are like meditations, peaceful, witty, wry and whimsical, charged with irony and paradox. A 20th Century anchoress, a modern equivalent of Julian of Norwich, her paintings echo Julian's saying 'Sin is behovely, but all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well'.

The artist drove her sports car at speed. Although moneyed, she lived frugally. She was sociable, visiting and receiving friends. While her cooking was unremarkable, her hospitality was warm. She had a sharp eye and a keen tongue. She gossiped and joked, and was a free and independent spirit, remembered for her sense of fun. Her students, if they do not obey the specifics of what she taught, do say that knowing her made them better artists.

On the whole Prunella Clough used a restrained palette, choosing muffled tones which she enlivened by the careful placing of strident, caustic or pungent highlights. The result of the apparent mismatching was a strong and somewhat disconcerting whole. Her working and reworking of the canvas resulted in a surface which was in part rough, in part smooth both parts providing evidence of her workmanship and the interaction between head, heart and hand. Because she was reticent, she remains in media terms an unknown. And yet, she was undoubtedly one of the most startling and inventive artistic figures in late 20th Century European art.

Early in her career she exhibited an inherent flair in manoeuvring and massing detail on the canvas to make a satisfactory whole. She also demonstrated a deft skill in reporting on daily activity. Her first pictures were of fishermen, factory workers, and lorry drivers, all remarkable for their composition and colouring. Her early urban landscapes have the poetic quality more usually associated with a rustic idyll. She was delighted by all things strange and ephemeral, such as those somewhat ghostly objects which fly across our vision and sometimes remain in the memory.

Prunella Clough followed in da Vinci's footsteps, learning by observation, as he did, that the markings made on a wall by the passage of time provide the seed for a painting. Her work stemmed from an inward vision and its interplay with what she saw passing on the wing. She captured tiny miracles, often evanescent and lambent, such as the sun illuminating drops of rain slipping across a discarded tin. The simplicity of her work is deceptive. Its ease and grace is upheld by an almost imperceptible but essentially stringent discipline. Her enormous appetite for visual experience look her on 'outings' to replenish her sensibility. She found stimuli that changed and deepened her feeling for colour; she reacted to the flight of detritus and those ephemeral moments when sun and shadow make mischief across the ground.

Although early on she lost her interest in the human form, her images show what any human can see. However, she saw these in her own way, at a slant, or sideways. So in her work there is always a revelation, a shock; the display of a vision which is original. Miss Clough presents the ordinary as extraordinary. If she portrayed a gate, she gave it a vast radiance; a twist of wire via her brush became a nimble ornament. The prosaic, the minor things, she painted with measured care--often with a touch of the clown, a glint of humour, a pinch of spice. She continuously draws the viewer into a world both concrete and fantastical. She provokes contentment through the inclusion of disorder.

Prunella Clough's work and words show how laboriously she applied herself to her art. Even the privacy she demanded for herself cannot hide the effort and the serious intent with which she painted. Her craft was equal to her art; and her spirit infused the canvas, it was the somewhat mysterious element she tucked within the paint. In her early period she was classified as a neo-romantic, a term singularly at odds with her application of paint which was more akin to that of the 'kitchen sink' brigade. From the first, she was bold. She was an adventurer, one who faced the canvas as a mountaineer would approach Everest, braced to reach the peak, welcoming the struggle to her target. It is no wonder that young painters today are swayed by her work.

In general Prunella Clough said little on her technique or the sources of her motifs. She considered that the work should 'speak' for itself. The following extracts are from a conversation in 1982 between the artist and Bryan Robertson, her friend and the curator of two of her important solo exhibitions.

'I think that having a tonal basis for the work is as much to do with the English wind and weather as anything else. In other words, geography and climate. I work from the subject matter, things perceived, and things that I see tend to be somewhat murky. I am not interested in fields and woods even though they are man-made. I prefer to look at the urban or industrial scene or any unconsidered piece of ground. Looking at the ground does come into my painting: those abandoned gloves for example. The recent paintings have a lot of wire in them.

'I prefer to be on my feet because the sense of place is crucial for me and involves sensations other than the purely optical ones of observation. Since I do not draw directly in landscape, it is the memory or recollections of a scene, which is also a whole event, that concerns me. A painting is made from many such events, rather than one,; and in fact its sources are many layered and can be quite distant in time, and are rarely if ever direct. I occasionally take rough photos, but often do not refer to them; they are only approximate aids for the memory.

'There is a vast discrepancy between the rawness of the original experience, walking around in any kind of wasteland, and the relatively tidied up and composed painting that comes from it. The trouble is that I have a lifetime's preoccupation with construction, layout: the traditional checks and balances. I cannot throw any of that out. It leads to an over elegance, unsuitable to the integrity or real presence of the raw material.

'The problem is finding a form for the urban chaos, because visually any scene in a fully urbanised context is overloaded. It is a problem of reduction, and simultaneously finding a form for the subject. If you actually look with precision at what you are seeing anywhere, a very drastic selection has to take place ultimately to fit certain preconceived forms. These forms may be left over from other paintings but still demand to be used. They may shape themselves over a long period. It is impossible to pinpoint their origins. But a concrete example recently was in seeing a photograph of a 1953 painting of a figure in front of a building site where the fence was surprisingly similar to a painting in 1979.

'My paintings seem to take their own unified scale and something as forceful as a human image is very disruptive to it. The landscape which preoccupies me happens to be in its nature fairly geometric, like the triangular gable of a roof, the crossed bars of a gate or the circular shape of an oil drum head on. I find these basic shapes .,sympathetic. Bearing in mind my partiality as a painter for the trace rather than the direct frontal confrontation, or representation, the reflected figures in subways seemed as acceptable as an abandoned glove on the ground.

'My interest certainly has no moral dimension. It helps, perhaps, that so much of industrial material is already abstract. Also you do not have to walk far to take a refresher course. It is because it is there, it is as neutral as that.

'I am not interested in technicalities for their own sake. I prefer oil paint because I find it more easy than acrylic to change during the process of the painting, which usually takes a long time. Hence, often, their beat up look. There are some pretty scraggy surfaces around. Every now and then I will pick up another kind of material to work on as a relief from canvas.'

Dimensions
Height 30.00 cm (11.81 inches)
Width 44.50 cm (17.52 inches)
Lucy Johnson

Lucy Johnson
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