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A GASOMETER IS AS GOOD AS A GARDEN

This week's blog is written by Modern British art specialist, James Rawlin, who tells us more about Prunella Clough's output. 

On my last visit to Jerwood Gallery I arrived a few minutes before the doors opened. I decided I would spend a little time strolling round the building to the seaward side and take a look at the working beach, filled with fishermen's huts, winch gear, boats and all manner of maritime accoutrements.

Outside one of the first buildings I encountered I saw a man working his way through a large bin of fish, moving each one onto his board, gutting it, slipping it into another bin and moving swiftly onto to the next fish. The dexterity of the rhythmic movement, the silvery sheen of the fish and the forms and surfaces of the huts immediately struck a chord; it was like standing within an early painting by Prunella Clough. 

Fishermen with Sprats I, 1948 is such a work. Her rendition of the involvement of the men in their task is more than just recounting an action, her attention to the surfaces and textures of the net, the fish or the aprons more than just observation. Each element of the painting is intended to allow us, the viewer, to experience this scene with as much gusto and enjoyment as something that might, on the surface, promise a more pleasant experience. 

Her early works, the fishermen, the factory workers, the lorry drivers, belong to the post-war world, a time from which we are now apparently far away. The realist paintings of the period by her contemporaries can be as much a thing of their time as an Ealing comedy or Dixon of Dock Green. As such, Clough's paintings could easily feel trapped there in the past, yet, as I found on my walk along Hastings beach in 2015, they don't. 

She moved towards using a more abstract imagery in the early 1960s, but that didn’t mean her concentrated involvement in the subject lessened. Fence and Bindweed, 1963 has the air and look of a minimalist abstract canvas, but it draws upon an everyday object seen in a way we might not expect. Clough is describing one part of the nature of that object, that place, that experience to us. Her pictorial world was one where we see through things, a net, a fence, or a torn tarpaulin, but we also see through a curtain of memories and impressions, combined over time to make an image.

Friends' recollections are filled with stories of Clough’s delight at being presented with an interesting piece of driftwood, plastic or other found object and how these were incorporated into her work. Sometimes they would become a surface forming part of a work, sometimes their ghosts remained after they contributed their relief, like a brass-rubbing, to a painting, drawing or print. They were transformed into something that has a life on the wall in front of us as we walk around an exhibition, or at home for those lucky enough to own a work by Clough. These are images that stay in the mind, popping up unbidden whenever one sees a view or object that has that same spirit.

Her work might be seen to sit at a crucial junction in post-war British art. That sense of the secret life within a subject, reborn in its new guise, is not a long way from the neo-romantic vision of Sutherland, but equally it does not seem far from the experimental insight into our environment of The Boyle Family where the most unprepossessing ground surface can become a thing of great beauty.

It has become something of a theme in recent writings on Prunella Clough to raise the point that she is much less well-known than many of her generation of artists. This is indeed true. Clough herself was not an overly public figure, preferring the company of her friends to the hubbub of the art world merry-go-round. Her shows tended to concentrate, at her insistence, on her more recent works making overviews less accessible than one might like. Her statements on her work are very few. She worked, she taught and she continues to inspire others through her art.

Prunella Clough: Unknown Countries is on display at the gallery until Wednesday 6 July 2016

Image © Pete Jones