Friday, 17 January 2014

Alan Sorrell at Sir John Soane's Museum

Yesterday I went down to London to visit the exhibition of the work of Alan Sorrell currently on at Sir John Soane's Museum.  As regular readers of this blog will know I have written several posts on his work.  It is a particular favourite of mine.

Perhaps it was the amount of scaffolding in the courtyard, but walking through Soane's house, (an experience I hadn't repeated since the 1980s), I was struck firstly by the progression from dark to light that the house has, from the sombre ground floor to the yellow drawing room on the first floor.  I was also struck with the amount of allusion and suggestion that the house evokes, the house is a monument to Romanticism.  It is a short step, perhaps, from the evocation of a religious sensibility in light and space in Soane's house to Pugin and the Oxford Movement.   From associative values to the real thing.  Thirdly the darkness, the accretion of objects seemed to presage so much of High Victorian aesthetic values.

The exhibition space, located in the house next door, is a relatively new addition to the museum.  I believe it was this house - itself a work of Soane - that was lived in by the director of the museum.  I could be wrong.  The exhibition itself is small, though I was far from disappointed - occupying two rooms.  It is complimented by an excellent book.  The exhibits are particularly well chosen to illustrate the facets of Sorrell's work, both private as well as the public.  I responded in particular to his technique - often the paper surface - worked with paint, ink, pencil, gouache, wax resist, charcoal - has a tactile quality.  At one time, I guess, this technique would be considered impure.  But it suits me fine.  It must partly through these techniques as well as the heightened atmosphere of much of his work that links Sorrell to the Neo-Romantics; certainly there is desire in his work to evoke a sense of place.  However I don't feel that abiding sense of unease in Sorrell's work that is often found in many Neo-Romantic artists.  In fact there is much that is cheerful, if not playful in his work.  Indeed sometimes there is an element of caricature about it.  In the mural, 'Working boats from around the British Coast' - a five panelled work in oil from the 'Nelson Bar' of  HMS Campania, two panels of which are on display at the exhibition - this is particularly so.  It's a light, happy piece.  Stylistically different too for being solely in one medium - oil.  I can't imagine many other Neo-Romantics being able to pitch their work so.  The murals were indeed a revelation.  Two stand out: 'The Seasons' at Myton (formerly Oken) School, Warwick, and the work he undertook at the Old Bexhill parish church.  If anything lets them down is that sense of  the grotesque, of the caricature that creeps in.  Thankfully it is kept mostly in check.  It is however a minor quibble and would that he had done more work of this type.  This light heartedness - dare I say charm? - stands in contrast to the serious, intense self-portrait he made in Nov 1928, as a Rome Scholar - does it reflect contemporary Italian artists?  I'm not sure.  It displays a crisp, angular analytical style - the influence also of Wyndham Lewis? - that soon gave way to his mature style.
Rather like the work of the architect Stephen Dykes Bower, Sorrell's work is both, paradoxically, known and unknown, in that the work of both men are woven into the fabric of so many lives in Britain and yet go uncredited.  Who hasn't seen the work of Dykes Bower at Royal and National services at both Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral?   Who, growing up in Post War Britain hasn't seen Sorrell's illustrations in a library book or on a visit to a ruined castle or abbey?  That was certainly my experience and that of my friend Richard.  Both men had the misfortune of working under the high point of Modernism, and there reputation therefore suffered as a result.

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