Prunella Clough, Disused Land, 1999, oil on canvas, 53 × 49".

Prunella Clough, Disused Land, 1999, oil on canvas, 53 × 49".

Prunella Clough

Prunella Clough—Pru to her friends, or sometimes Pruny—liked “paintings that say a small thing rather edgily,” as she told the Picture Post in 1949, when she was interviewed alongside her notable peers of the day, among them Robert Colquhoun, Patrick Heron, and Keith Vaughan. She was just thirty, but her succinct articulation of artistic aims already hinted at what would be a lifelong painterly commitment: “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.” So “edgily” as in: wayward, askew, accidental, abject, forgotten. But also: on edge, unsettling, with cumbrous geometries, unbalanced images, smudged and bleeding colors, and forms on the knife edge of becoming something else. Her paintings are singular, perhaps, or even solitary—a word that Clough’s peers often used to describe her and that she herself had found fitting at times (once, to her close friend John Berger: “I’m just a solitary!”).

At Pallant House Gallery, six decades of Clough’s work were on display to celebrate her centenary, and the painter’s edgy predilections and gifts beguiled with full force. Clough, who spent the war years working in mapping and graphic design for the Ministry of Labor, began painting in earnest in the early 1940s. Her work swerves through an array of postwar movements and schools—from Surrealism to neo-Romanticism, from social realism to abstraction—but always with a very idiosyncratic, very English eye on the landscape and how expansively it might be visualized and transformed. In works from the ’50s, the settings are avowedly industrial: factories, cooling towers, wharves, and barrel yards in looming and blunt, stocky shapes, often painted in dusky-blue half-light. The denizens of these nether zones seem at one with the aesthetic of their surroundings. In Manhole II, 1952, for instance, a brown-garbed worker fuses with the lid he’s prizing open—which threatens to swallow his flattened body whole—in angular swaths of russet, wheat, and taupe. The man, like the manhole cover and its pale, abstracted surroundings, is compressed and coarse, native to the rough texture of the canvas.

“I never painted an abstract painting in my life,” Clough maintained, a conviction that lends the later works their curious potency. Sunset in Mining Area, 1959, is a radically simplified image: The setting sun is a tangle of puce and gray on a dark-green horizon, below which glints a thick, fiery smudge of orange, embedded in the night fields. Electrical Installation I, 1959, is even wilder in its minimalism: a rectangular field of dove gray dappled with hazy nodes of cobalt blue, joined by a network of sooty and energetic lines, oblongs, ovals. In her diaries, Clough described her forays along the urban edges of London, detailing in elaborate word sketches the images and objects she “collected,” the “awkward facts” of which she would later assemble paintings that, particularly in the later years, hovered tensely between figuration and abstraction.

Clough’s friend Heron described her paintings as “machines for seeing,” understanding that they reconstitute the eye that beholds them, and then what that eye sees anew upon reentering the world. Beholding works such as Brown Wall, 1964; Small Gate Painting 6, 1980; and Disused Land, 1999—an ethereal piece made in the year of the artist’s death—the eye judders, seeing at once the things described in the titles and their pictorial alter egos, given life by the interior logic of the painting. To look at Clough’s work is to really look, as she always did: to see that in figurative indeterminacy is the unending possibility of visual significance. As Clough said, “Art is as realistic as activity and as symbolic as fact.”