(1919–99) British painter
Born in London in 1919 Prunella Clough was an innovative and pioneering painter and printmaker who developed a unique and highly individual style. Throughout a career which began in the 1940s she was fascinated by urban and industrial landscapes and detritus. Her paintings evolved during her lifetime into an abstract distillation of her subject matter.
The archive held by Tate Modern (London) includes a collection of photographs and notebooks. Her photos captured elements that she had seen and others might easily miss but her paintings were not a direct translation of these. Instead she used her photos and written notes, which described what she saw and how she felt, and interpreted them into a new visual language of her own. It was unusual, at the time, for a woman to be taking inspiration from what was widely viewed as a man’s world of manual labour and industry and her working method was highly individual.
Clough’s work demonstrated a new way of seeing but despite a considerable contribution to modernism and the development of abstract art, she was a very private person and never became a household name. She was as prolific in her output in the years leading up to her death, aged 80 in 1999, as she was in earlier years. After a lifetime of painting, her achievements were finally recognised when she won the prestigious Jerwood Prize for Painting in 1999 shortly before her death.
In the 40s and early 50s she was associated with the Neo-Romantics, a term applied to the imaginative and often abstract landscape based painting of Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and others in the late 30s and 40s.
Clough’s early work (from the 40s onwards) focused on labourers in industrial settings (fishermen, lorry drivers, builders, factory workers) using an angular, graphic style and limited colour range. These early paintings combine elements of the Neo-Romantic spirit of place and Social Realism’s attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor.
Her abstract and figurative paintings share a common purpose which she expressed in 1949 when she wrote: “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.”
In the 50s and 60s Clough moved to a less figurative style as she began to focus more on urban scenes. She travelled visiting cooling towers, steel smelters, derelict factories and scrapyards reflecting the growing urbanisation and industrialisation of Britain. She took inspiration from the shapes and colours of the industrial structures and scenes she encountered.
As her individual style developed, she used found objects such as hairdryers, wire mesh and rusting scrap as a basis for her explorations of paint and form. She declared that “a gasometer is as good as a garden, indeed probably better, as one paints what one knows”.
By the 60s her paintings and prints had evolved to pure abstraction using a very restrained range of colours. They give very little away except a sense of perfect harmony and balance in terms of colour, form and composition. There is something calm and meditative in these paintings.
In the 1980s Clough created a series of abstracted paintings featuring light industrial objects such as gates, fences and wire. She also became absorbed by shadows cast by people and objects on walls and pavements (there are many photographs of these in the Tate archive).
In the latter decades of her career, Clough made a number of works that reference scraps of urban debris found on the streets of London, such as plastic bags, discarded gloves, and oil stains. In1989 she exhibited these paintings in a show entitled Prunella Clough: Recent Paintings, 1980-1989 at Annely Juda Fine Art Gallery in London. The show was a critical and financial success and gained her wider recognition.
Later in life she turned her attention to found plastic including colourful objects such as buckets and toys that might be found on a market stall.
A chronological look at some of Clough’s paintings
A chronological look at a selection of Clough’s paintings is enlightening because it reveals the evolution of her personal style and her journey to pure abstraction through explorations of shape, form, scale, layering, composition and colour. We can see that as confidence in her individual methods and approach develops she becomes a master of composition, filling the picture plane with a distilled energy and making excellent use of negative space.
Trawlnet (1946) Inspired by workers at Lowestoft in Suffolk, this painting has a Neo Romantic feel as well as hints of Social Realism in the depiction of fishermen attending to their nets on the beach. Clough had a staunch belief in the dignity and value of labour.
Deserted Gravel Pit (1946) This scene of abandonment is reminiscent of the work of Graham Sutherland. Here we see a simplification of a largely lifeless landscape depicted in a muted grey, ochre and brown with just one small glimmer of green.
Lowestoft Harbour (1951) This is one of the most notable paintings in her series of fishermen The influence of Picasso can be seen in the blocky line work in this painting but Clough preferred a more subtle colour palette of grey with touches of ochre and rusty brown.
Landscape with cable (1957) A fully abstracted landscape consisting of geometric shapes and employing a muted palette gently lifted by subtle accents of pale blue.
Cooling Tower (1958) Clough travelled the UK seeking out industrial landscapes and studying their shape and form. In this painting the colour range is severely limited to a very pale grey and the lightest of browns. The monolithic tower dominates while delicately painted industrial detritus surrounds.
Electrical Landscape (1960) The faint oval shapes in the vertical band at the centre of the painting recall electricity pylons. The limited colour range is characteristic of her work. She has created texture by scraping areas of paint.
By the Canal (1976) Here we see Clough’s fence motif in this minimalist industrial landscape.
Broken Gates (1982) Another of Clough’s favoured motifs – a tangle of broken gates.
Wire and Demolition (1982) Clough became ever more focused on micro elements of the landscape in the form of discarded waste. Tangled wire became another of her motifs.
Perforated fragment (1985) No doubt a found fragment but, typically, Clough is giving nothing away.
Toy Pack Sword (1988) Plastic detritus, a market stall sword? Clough is perhaps now painting the market stall items and plastic objects that fascinated her later in life. More vivid, vibrant colours are being used.
Household Goods (1989) The market stall as the source of objects that may later be discarded, broken and become waste?
False Flower (1993) – A discarded object that resembled a flower? The Tate descriptions say much about the painting technique but do not attempt to interpret the image. The archivists were working directly with Clough when this painting was first documented… she may have not wished to interpret her own paintings preferring to leave it to the viewer.
Accessories (1996) I find Clough’s later paintings increasingly difficult to analyse but perhaps that’s because they are meant to be felt rather than rationalised.
Samples (1997) As above.
Prunella Clough was born in London in 1919 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art and Camberwell School of Art. Her first solo exhibition was at the Leger Gallery, London, in 1947. Her aunt was the architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray; a pioneer of the modern movement.
The Whitechapel Gallery in East London staged an early retrospective in 1960 – a landmark for a female painter – but for the last 40 years of her life she kept a low profile, avoiding interviews.
A retrospective of her work was held at the Camden Arts Centre and Oriel 37, Newton Powys in 1996 and a major exhibition was held at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in 1998. She won the Jerwood Prize for Painting in 1999 shortly before her death in the same year.
A retrospective of her work was held at Tate Britain London in 2007 which also toured to Norwich and Kendal.
Clough’s work is in many public collections including the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London
The Tate website, Prunella Clough Archive
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/prunella-clough-921 (accessed 30/11/17))
Clough, Prunella (1919–99), A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, 2015
Art and Artists, National Galleries Scotland website https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/438/electrical-landscape-1960 (accessed 30/11/17)
Spencer, Catherine, A tour through the wastelands: don’t miss Prunella Clough at Osborne Samuel, Apollo magazine, 12 May 2015
https://www.apollo-magazine.com/a-tour-through-the-wastelands-dont-miss-prunella-clough-at-osborne-samuel/ (accessed 30/11/17)
Prunella Clough at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Government Art Collection – http://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/jerwood.html (accessed 30/11/17)
Gayford, Martin, The painting prize that got it right, The Telegraph, 22/09/99
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4718483/The-painting-prize-that-got-it-right.html (accessed 1/12/17)
The Tate website – Art terms
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/n/neo-romanticism (accessed 01/12/17)
Wikipedia – Social Realism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_realism (accessed 01/12/17)
Wikipedia – Prunella Clough
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunella_Clough (accessed 01/12/17)
Nationwide choice: Prunella Clough, The Times (London, England) 04/08/01