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Prunella Clough: Strange and Unfamiliar
[ Essay )
On the centenary of Prunella Clough’s birth, Chloe Nahum considers the enduring fascination with the everyday which enabled her to capture seemingly prosaic subjects in an entirely new light.
In a 1949 issue of the Picture Post, Clough made a statement of artistic intent which would remain remarkably pertinent to her work through to her death in 1999. She declared that:
Anything that the eye or the mind’s-eye sees with intensity and excitement will do for a start; a gasometer is as good as a garden, probably better; one paints what one knows. […] Whatever the theme, it is the nature and structure of an object – that, and seeing it as if it were strange and unfamiliar, which is my chief concern.
Much would change in Clough’s forms of visual expression over the next fifty years, yet her curiosity in the commonplace and mundane, seen anew, remained constant.
The gasometer and its manmade, structurally-distinctive like, would always be favoured by Clough over more conventional subjects, with bundles of wire and electrical installations amongst her chosen motifs. Early on, her attention was drawn to harbours and industrial landscapes, their workers described in cubist-inflected constructions.
As she developed an increasingly abstracted mode of depicting the debris and deserted zones of urban wastelands, these figures departed her canvases, slowly receding into barely legible form, before exiting the scene entirely. Yet suggestions of anthropomorphic intervention, be it in the form of a broken gate or a discarded glove found outside a factory, remained insistently present.
Born in November 1919 into a wealthy Kensington family and niece of the celebrated designer Eileen Gray, Clough was not native to such landscapes. Instead, visits were taken throughout her life to the harbours of Lowestoft and Southwold, to factories such as the Peek Frean Biscuit factory in Bermondsey, where initially something of a curious novelty, she was soon left to her own devices to sketch.
Closer to home, her local neighbourhood of Fulham provided its own singular visual stimuli; she rhapsodised over a “very nice, very aesthetic blue litter bin in Fulham Broadway underground station, rusted of course in an appropriate way, how tempting it all is.”
Through Clough’s eyes, we time and again observe with this exhilarating curiosity in the banal; the temptation for the gaze to linger on seemingly unremarkable objects and their accidental compositions. Archetypal is Brown Wall (1964), an important work in the Gallery’s significant holdings of works by Clough, which are shown together in this exhibition for the first time alongside a number of rarely seen private loans.
Though initially appearing to be a decisively abstract work, its vast passages of seemingly non-representational paint are rather revealed by its title to be a commonplace element of the unconsidered everyday scene. Through her textural and compositional originality, Clough encourages us to look again at overlooked surroundings.
Clough spoke of her “lifetime’s preoccupation with construction, layout: the traditional checks and balances”, a statement which recalls in it her work as a cartographer during the Second World War (the outbreak of which had interrupted her studies at Chelsea School of Art, where Henry Moore’s sculpture class was a noted favourite).
These ‘checks and balances’ were supported throughout her life by detailed and extensive verbal inventories of the colours and compositions of observed scenes (‘streaky speckled glittering jerky modulated gradated colour’, reads one such list), sketches, and photographs. Yet rather than the objective eye of the mapper, it was the remembered experience of place that was fundamental to Clough’s work, which looked on at its subject as through the gauzy veil of memory.
While she stated her enduring theme to be landscape, hers was not the conventional representation of the landscape painter. Rather, it was something which “grows as a crystal”, producing an accreted sensory evocation of place. Sensations “other than the purely optical ones of observation” are marked on her canvases.
Shortly before her death Clough received the Jerwood Painting Prize, for what she wryly described as ‘a lifetime’s grafting’. In bringing to light her mastery and singular vision, the centenary exhibition at Pallant House Gallery reveals the extraordinary results of this graft.