Prunella Clough on the beach

by thenewenglishlandscape

Boats in Winter and War Defences, 1941-2
Oil on canvas (30.5 x 41cm)
Private collection, courtesy of Annely Juda Fine Art

The publication of Frances Spalding’s generously illustrated biography, Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped (Lund Humphries) is welcome. Clough (1919 – 1999) was a key artist in the post-war move away from the ‘Romantic Moderns’ – many of whom had spent the war drawing and painting scenes from religious and stately-home architecture for the Recording Britain project – to a fresh concern with the East Anglian coast and its wartime detritus. Having made an impact with her Surrealist-influenced picture of 1940, Sea Composition, she went on to paint Shore-line and War Defences (1941-42), Closed Beach (1945) and the acclaimed Dead Bird (1945-46), before taking up the cause of realism with scenes from the working life of docks, harbours and factories. Her colour palette was mostly based on sombre hues, rust and yellow ochre, with heavy black outlining of the principal figurative components.

Clough’s choice of subject matter was original. Though John Piper had published his influential essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’ in 1936, few other artists had really got to grips with the strange atmosphere of the modern shoreline, though Paul Nash’s 1941 Totes Meer had already commanded great attention. Today there is a problem, however, with the iconography of decaying wartime pillboxes, block-houses, and beach anti-tank blockades, which have all become something of a cliché, as have the more organic forms of shoreline flotsam and jetsam, no matter in what fantastical configurations they are captured naturally or by artful design. As Spalding’s book reminds us, Clough’s seashore imagery remains more powerful and nuanced than most contemporary artistic depictions of the shoreline and its unique sense of the uncanny.

Lund Humphries the publisher of Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped have a blog dedicated to Modern British Art: