A painter’s painter

In October 1999, aged 80, Prunella Clough was awarded the prestigious Jerwood Painting Prize. Although highly respected by her peers, in her lifetime Clough’s paintings were not well known to the wider public. If the award was late in coming, these distinctive paintings – largely abstract while reflecting the texture and surfaces of urban life – were some of the most powerful in her career. Just two months after winning the Jerwood Prize Clough died, following a battle with cancer. In February of that year, the GAC had been given the rare opportunity to interview this very private artist at her home in Fulham. Dr Mary Beal, former Curator of Research and Conservation at the GAC, went to meet Clough and the following is her account of this meeting from the GAC’s archives.

Trawlnet (1946)

© Estate of the Artist

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We sat in the living room, the walls painted in aquamarine with a sponged/textured effect. The doors and floor were stripped wood, the back wall covered with shelves of art books. In the corner, by the window, stood a tall white wooden construction, reminiscent of Paul Nash’s suspended ‘egg box’ constructions in ‘The Soul visiting the Mansions of the Dead’ (1932, version in The British Council Collection). On the wall near the fireplace was an abstract print in grey, white and blue. She did not discuss these, nor did she show me any of her work, or her studio; this was a first meeting and she seemed to want to assess my reasons for coming to see her. She offered me coffee and cake; by evening we progressed to whisky and cigarettes (Clough) and red wine (me).

The GAC has twelve works by her, dating from 1946 (image 1) to 1997. It is interesting to note that she is better represented in the GAC than in most public collections. She had told me in advance that she would be pleased to see me to discuss art in general, but that she could not remember much about the paintings we had by her. She laughs and smiles a great deal, and picks up points and develops them in an exciting way. It is hard to believe she is eighty this year as she moves with the lightness and grace of someone considerably younger.

Early memories

The first art books she saw as a child were from the library, in which works of art were reproduced in grey photographs. It is easy to see how exposure to these images might have had an impact on developing her strong sense of shape and line and also dictating a narrow band of tone and colour (image 2).

She said that all of us are in some way products of the time in which we are born. In her case this was the 1930s when Paul Nash (image 3) was an ‘unavoidable’ part of British art. She witnessed the mass unemployment and depression of the 1930s; she worked as a cartographer in the War Office in London during the Blitz and visited Holland at the end of the war where she saw firsthand the devastated towns, villages and countryside.

Her early works of 1944–45 were still life scenes on beaches – blanched driftwood on the shoreline, reminiscent of wrecked boats and bones, and skeletons of birds on the sand. They recall pictures of the same period by Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and more specifically Edward Burra, all of which evoke the death, desolation and threat of invasion associated with war. She maintains a link with these early beach scenes, as she often still visits run-down, half-forgotten, lonely English coastal resorts, already passed into history.

She also remembers the drabness of post-war Britain in the 1950s, the nuclear power stations, the building of the bomb, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches to Aldermaston and the threat of nuclear war. Clough grew up in a world where the individual became anonymous and seemed to be controlled, threatened and indeed sometimes obliterated by machines and a machine-driven economy (image 4).

Looking closely at her work in the GAC from the 1950s, such as ‘Lorry with Cabledrum’ (image 5), ‘Man by Fence’ (two versions), ‘Urban Detail’ and ‘Chemical Works’ there is a sense of desolation and alienation in these images, reinforced by a lack of colour. ‘Scatter Black’ (1971) (image 6) recalls the black-and-white film footage and aerial photographs of bombing raids on cities at night – familiar to someone working as a cartographer in the war office. Later works, such as ‘Dark Garland’ (1992) (image 7) echo an earlier image such as ‘Commemorate’ (1976) and thus perhaps hint at the idea of a commemorative wreath. Her works carry a powerful emotional punch – even if she does not want to be drawn on the specific subject matter.

A burr stuck to the brain

Clough said that her first ideas for a work were very simple – usually small sketches on the back of envelopes. She said that an idea can attach itself like a burr to the brain and that ‘you can’t get rid of it until you have made a picture of it’. She cannot work in series as she would find this boring and she said she was ‘too old to be bored’. She works on a number of paintings at once, because all paintings demand a great deal of time and you cannot ‘relate’ to just one painting every day. Sometimes she carries images around in her head for years before they come to fruition visually.

She said that when she paints, her paintings cannot be said to reflect what she is feeling at the moment, nor what is going on in her life. For her painting is a job, a discipline of working at it at nine o’clock in the morning; the important thing is the relationship with the painting at that moment.

We looked at some slides of her paintings in the Collection. She remarked how her painting ‘Lorry with Cabledrum’ (1953) (image 5) had a strong, clear composition, with a definite top and bottom, unlike some of her later work. She also said that what was written in catalogues said enough about her work, and she thought any comments from her were superfluous.

Learning to let go

We spoke of the difficulty of putting art into words; the words only follow later and can stand in the way of the object itself. She felt that what was important was to approach art at another level by accessing a visual language that people possess within themselves but need to discover for themselves. She felt that this visual language could be achieved when art entered the subconscious and evoked memories, in the way that a certain smell, piece of poetry or music can do. She told me how David Hockney took his students to a bridge over a river in Yorkshire and told them to throw the drawings they had made into the river. He then explained to them that it was not the drawing – the end-product – which mattered, but the thought process they had mastered in order to achieve this new visual language. By throwing their drawings into the river they also learnt how important it was to be able to let go of their work. I told her that her paintings had helped me to see everyday scenes in a different way and had helped me through a visual barrier. She replied that this was the best thing one could say to an artist.

A puritanical streak

Clough talked about the difficulty of being an artist in England as she felt that as a nation we resisted the idea of highly charged, emotional art. She thought it had something to do with the destruction of images during the Reformation and the Puritanism which followed, which decreed that art is not to be enjoyed. However she was very pleased that the Tate is now such a lively place and felt that Nicholas Serota (appointed in 1988) has the right idea as its new director. She thought it was great that banks and even universities were collecting modern art, remarking that ‘a Bert Irvin painting at the end of a corridor really gives one a lift’.

Breaking down the barriers

Clough said that she that although she thought that the end of the 20th century was a very complex time for art as there was so much going on. She was delighted to see the barriers coming down between different media; in her view the collaborative work necessary between artists to produce creative work, for example in the medium of video was a positive development. She drew parallels between the 17th and 20th centuries as periods of extreme turmoil and amazing scientific discoveries.

Clough finds it difficult to keep up with all the gallery shows in London but tries to go regularly to Paris and Amsterdam (where she loves visiting the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam). She is looking forward to the Pollock exhibition at the Tate and ‘seeing all those paintings by him which had such an impact on artists in the 1960s’.

At the end of the meeting Clough seemed pleased with how it had gone. It was the only time we met.
(image 8)