It did not surprise me that on the morning after the private view of Prunella Clough's exhibition at Austin Desmond, a queue of people had already collected outside the gallery. Clough’s exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard (1999) and Tate Britain (2007) were similarly inundated by unexpected numbers of this modest artist’s audience, while her funeral service in 2000 was a testament to a singular reputation and influence. The huge congregation at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, spanned the upper echelons of the art establishment, dealers, artists and most movingly, many of her former students.
Prunella Clough, 'Net Barrows', 1958
‘A Human Edge’ coincides with the publication of Frances Spalding’s excellent book ‘Regions Unmapped’ (Lund Humphries) – a long overdue, comprehensive account of Clough’s artistic development that is located within the trajectory of her life and which captures very well this artist’s intelligence and wit. As Clough’s great friend Peter Adam noted in his text for the Annely Juda Fine Art exhibition of late works in 2000: “If she was the freest person I have known, she was also the wisest. She was completely free of material want, free of conventions, free of desire for fame.”
Prunella Clough, 'Study', c.1970
Prunella Clough, 'Untitled', 1975 The exhibition provides a welcome opportunity to see important early works such as Net Barrows (1958) and the wonderful Landscape Through Glass II (1958) both of which featured in Clough’s 1960 Whitechapel retrospective, with examples of paintings from different periods up to her death in 1999. Amongst these canvases the large Untitled 1975 and Black Flower 1993 are standout, signature images. Elsewhere the combination of small paintings, constructions and graphics are slightly more eclectic – evidence perhaps that Clough’s collectors tend to hold on to the work, relishing its subtle effects and peculiarity, rather than relinquishing it to the vagaries of the art market. Within a modest space, however, the exhibition offers a sense of Clough’s great range, with examples of her intriguing use of materials - an assemblage Red and Black 1974 incorporates a typewriter ribbon within a Perspex box and Study c. 1970, a wonderfully judged collage, positions a battered piece of punctured cardboard over a grid of architectonic line. Her subtle graphic judgement is conveyed through a number of interesting works on paper including the beautiful spare lithograph Sea-Wrack 1952, a mixed media collage Track Event 1975 and Blue Form c. 1970, an exquisite, tiny, hand-coloured etching that sings out into the gallery space.
As I looked at the works (some familiar, others a complete surprise), I was prompted to ask the question: what is it that lasts, or keeps, from an individual artist’s endeavour? The work certainly – artefacts that are made and put into the world – but in some instances and in Clough’s case for me, personally, it is also about alerting us to how we perceive things, what we remember, what we take in response to the work into our own lives.
Prunella Clough, 'Sea Wrack', 1952
Unsurprisingly it was another artist, Patrick Heron, who I think best described the effects of Clough’s ability to alert viewers to the ‘visual facts’ that were the starting point for her images: ‘Always, after even half an hour in the presence of a painting or two by Prunella, your consciousness seems suddenly attuned to certain realities which immediately become overwhelmingly visually available to you as you walk away down the pavement – any pavement. The gritty greys of West London brickwork; the rectilinear grid of the mortar separating each brick … the regular rows of punched-out holes in an old metal grille at your feet; the sudden surprisingly organic irregularity of seven blades of grass erupting in the crack between two paving stones…’ [from Prunella Clough: Recent Paintings 1980 – 1989, Annely Juda Fine Art].