Unconsidered Wastelands

Gerard Hastings

Prunella was notoriously reticent about discussing the subject or the methods involved in her painting; she was guarded and reserved whenever conversation turned to her work and skilfully dismissed all attempts to analyse or examine her paintings. She granted only a handful of interviews, most notably to Bryan Robertson. I count myself fortunate, therefore, that she allowed me to interview her in 1982. I also listened attentively whenever she let conversation slip, perhaps over a drink with trusted painter friends like Robert Medley; it was then she was more likely to reveal her attitudes to painting. I occasionally sat in on her tutorials as she discussed composition and working methods. (1) My abiding memory of her is that creativity was an utterly serious endeavour, of crucial significance to her – and something never to be taken lightly.

Prunella made use of materials that are not usually associated with the painter’s studio; she acquired many of them on her ‘shopping expeditions’. When she left the house, armed with her shopping bags, she was on a mission. She leaned into skips for a good old rummage, pulling out promising bits. It was impossible for her to pass a worksite without foraging through the debris. If the tide was out, she clambered down to see what flotsam and jetsam had been washed up on the Thames shingle. On the way to teaching she scrambled fearlessly into derelict buildings for a good magpie-mooch around the rusting guts of deserted factories and take her ‘source photographs’. (2) At work, Prunella collected leftover pieces of material, went through the studio bins or the theatre department trash, on the hunt for spare scrim, hand-made paper or textured fabrics. The journey home was as likely to involve stopovers at the plumbers’ merchants and hardware outlets as it was visits to the art shop. Whenever she passed the newsagents and bargain shops on the North End Road she took photographs of the multi-coloured washing-up bowls and garish plastic toys. Back home her shopping bags were emptied and the useful booty spilled out: old work gloves, wire mesh, pieces of rusting metal, a plastic toy sword, fragments of Formica, a shard of coloured pottery or a steam-rolled tin can – overlooked and walked-past trinkets – from those unconsidered wastelands that we pass every day. These trophies were put in the studio or placed on the bleached kitchen table, for consideration. Eventually they assisted with her work – either as implements with which to make marks or as subject matter. Now and then, an objet trouvé might be incorporated into an assemblage or stuck to the surface of a painting. Along with sable brushes, tubes of Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson, Prunella’s shopping bags might contain sandpaper, decorators’ abrasives, tile grout, wallpaper scrapers, rollers and wire wool. Bits of bubble wrap and corrugated cardboard were practical in generating densely dotted backgrounds or cross-hatchings. Pieces of pin board, paper doylies, punched metal sheets, fragments of garden fencing came in handy as stencils to build up complex fields of coloured textures. (3)

Not only did Prunella gather visual data in sketchbooks but also in more unconventional ways. Her diary pages carry thumbnail sketches, recording her day’s progress on a painting and we can trace the compositional adjustments that occurred over the course of its maturation. Surviving sketchbooks contain written notations in an immensely complex language of description, analysis and metaphor that reads like an abstract poem: Difference between man-standing, and man-doing; latter easier but less the intention? Also, re enclosed etc., not so. E.g. idea of man/transformer (K. I.) linked only by wire grid (how?) consider final intention which is to be conveyed on larger scale. i.e. nature of urban building, old/tacky and new/slick, (which implies urban skyline and sky density), and includes the non-directly industrial... (4) From the 1930s onwards Prunella always carried a camera to record ‘those unconsidered wastelands’ as she called them. She snapped at cracks in pavements, dockside cranes, wire-mesh gates, slagheaps, tarpaulins, piles of ropes and stains on walls – things usually considered unworthy of a photographic record. These ‘source photographs’ informed the drawings and studies she made while preparing paintings. She never considered herself a photographer and explained to me that when she began her career as a commercial artist, ...you needed to meet deadlines and get projects finished and so you used a camera to record things. It’s only a piece of apparatus that helps you get a job done. It helps things sink in a bit. Lots of painters use cameras – Robert [Medley] does. So does Patrick [Procktor] and Michael [Leonard] and Francis [Bacon]. Because when you look through the camera you’re selecting something that has caught your eye and you filter out things that are not important. Doesn’t matter if you don’t use it – it trains your eye, helps you notice... It’s just another kind of pencil, after all, you know. (5)

Prunella’s studio was the nerve-centre of Moore Park Road and, later, Sherbrook Road in Fulham. Larger canvases were stacked against the walls and smaller paintings were arranged separately, in neat groups. Unstretched canvases were rolled up, like carpets, with their painted surface to the outside. Once I asked her about how she had made a certain texture. She said: Well it’s just paint, in the end, and you push it round ’til it works – that’s all. You get better at it over the years but you build up your marks and your way of doing things. And art makes art – it doesn’t just come from what you see, you know. You’ve just got to keep on doing it. (6) There were always piles of canvases lying around. If a painting wasn’t ‘behaving itself’, as she would say, she had her way of dealing with it:

If it’s not working, go on to something else. Or put it away until later when you might be able to tackle it. I take some of them off the stretchers and fold them up into heaps and get them out later. They’re cooking. (7)

Over the course of their gestation the ‘disobedient canvases’ developed pronounced creases where paint cracked around the folds. These were subsequently transformed into her ‘quadrant’ paintings.

Works on paper were painted on the flat surface of her small studio tables. The process took place among rags, stencils, brushes, tubes of paint, tin cans for mixing her colours and ashtrays full of her old smokes. Studio ‘ciggie breaks’ were handy for pausing, looking and assessing her progress. She capitalised on the chance marks and happy accidents that occurred in her organised chaos. Virgin canvases, for example, would be dragged across the floor to pick up oily deposits or paint pots and dirty rags would be placed on them to generate marks to kick-start a creative journey. This might sound somewhat slap-dash and a bit ‘chancy’, but Prunella was a stickler for correct procedure and good workmanship; she had her own systematic dis-organisation and her ritualistic processes were scrupulously observed. Having experienced rationing and the deprivations of the war, she abhorred wasting materials. Brushes were thoroughly washed at the end of each session and lids were put back on varnish pots or covered with cling-film. Paintings had to be laid against the wall properly: face-to-face and back-to-back. Despite the surrounding mess, hers was an orderly, efficient workspace.

Most painters work in a direct manner, transferring pigment from the brush straight to the canvas. It is surprising just how much of Prunella’s painting was made in an indirect manner. Being also a printmaker meant that she was familiar with working in a step-by-step manner before taking a final ‘pull’. This procedure filtered through to her painting, which was a drawn-out affair, full of expectation and anticipation. She would coat pieces of card with pigment and press them to the surface of her canvas, labouriously building up a patchwork of small, mono-printed marks. An ‘over-all’ texture would slowly materialise. This might be partially obliterated or reworked with further velatures and glazes. She created stencils from chicken mesh, perforated sheet metal and hole-punched hardboard. (8) These were held against the canvas as she dabbed and sprayed pigment through them. Pieces of string or scratched Formica might be rolled with paint and pressed to the canvas. Sand and silicon carbide dust (carborundum) might be incorporated to thicken the consistency of the paint. Before she painted her forms or motifs, she would tape trial pieces of coloured card to the canvas or hold them in place with bulldog clips at the edges.

The removal of pigment sometimes created marks more interesting than the application of it and so Prunella scratched, scraped and rubbed her canvases down. She would dab and blot the surface with solvents to lift off accretions of paint, then rag-roll and smudge it until the image began to ‘obey’ her. The memory of previous marks might remain and breathe through the lingering consistency. Prunella once admitted that old copies of the Telegraph came in useful while working with decalcomania, or liquid blotting techniques. Apparently it didn’t absorb the pigment as rapidly as The Times or the Guardian and so she had time to create more useful textures. (9) When her brush-tracks and paint marks are examined at close quarters it becomes clear that Prunella allowed diluted paint to dribble down the surface of some of her canvases. She turned them round so that the pigment trickles changed direction to form grid-like patterns or meshes of marks created by gravity. (10)

When asked how she coped with dabbing on the interminable number of minuscule dots that cover the surface of paintings like Still Life, (1987), she replied, ‘Oh I love doing jobs like that – you don’t have to think about it; its mechanical and you can work out other things in your head.’ (11) After her studio, the kitchen was Prunella’s favourite place; she invented and created things in these two rooms. Scrubbing brushes, Brillo pads, nail brushes and scourers were commandeered to scratch, scrape and scrub her paintings in a never-ending quest for interesting fields of textures. Sometimes domestic objects were incorporated directly into her work. In 1970 Keith Vaughan received a Christmas card from her, consisting of a green kitchen scourer with an etching of a baby stuck to it. Pigment-loaded pipe-cleaners, toilet brushes and stiff-bristled toothbrushes were requisitioned to be flicked and thwacked across her pictures to build up speckled surfaces. A variety of utensils, including washboards, potato mashers, colanders and washing-up mops, inspired pictorial motifs, profiles and curious outlines. In the mid 1980s Prunella turned up one evening at the flat of John Ball and Gordon Hargreaves and marched into their kitchen with a small painting called Industrial Landscape (c.1960). She placed it on a shelf, next to their old-fashioned gas grill, declaring that it should live there. When they protested, pointing out it would get splashed, covered in fat and be exposed to their steaming kettle, she replied ‘Exactly – it will go on cooking nicely!’ (12)

Industrial Landscape, c. 1960

Despite receiving a traditional training from Ceri Richards, Victor Pasmore and Henry Moore, Prunella worked eccentrically, with inspiration coming from surprising quarters. She hated limiting herself to one medium and employed a wide range of materials, processes and techniques, sometimes simultaneously in a single work; it all depended what the image required or dictated. She was always thrifty, to say the least, and even made a series of pictures incorporating her used typewriter ribbons. Her processes were often long, drawn-out affairs since she mistrusted paintings that resolved themselves too readily. Frequently she destroyed them if she felt they weren’t functioning satisfactorily; she would burn them or cut them up and cannibalise them into new pieces. She said: I am trying to reach beyond the mere manufacture of a painting the getting-it-all-together, and this entails time. Paintings are made slowly because I work slowly on many things at once. (13) Prunella was concerned that her paintings were not ‘tough’ enough and worried that they were over elegant and too tidy. She fretted that her style was chameleon-like, changing from canvas to canvas. She liked to have several paintings on the go at once, in her endeavour to create a more homogenous style. ‘Time is part of the factor of change,’ she said, preferring her paintings to ‘gestate, ferment and cook.’ (14) She told Bryan Robertson: I am not interested in technicalities for their own sake. I prefer oil paint because I find it more easy than acrylic to change during the progress of the painting which usually takes a long time. Hence, often, their beat-up look. There are some pretty scraggy surfaces around. Every now and then I will pick up another kind of material to work on as a relief from canvas. It is interesting to play around with neutral, machine-made surfaces as opposed to built-in connotations of the stretched canvas. (15) Nevertheless she had her characteristic pictorial habits. For example, in her earlier pictures she relished playing off ‘abstract’ textures (denoting, perhaps, piles of wire or scrap), against figurative shapes.(16) Later, a form might be enclosed in a contrasting hue to lend it greater pictorial value. A dab of colour might be employed to ‘sing out’ from the surface of the picture – perhaps an acidic disc of lemon (17) or a subtle blue square, to set alight a monochromatic composition.

Prunella was an accomplished teacher and taught at Chelsea and Wimbledon Schools of Art. Her dislike of institutional politics meant she shied away from positions of responsibility and hierarchy. We discussed art education often since I was teaching History of Art. She explained to me that, Teaching keeps you on your toes. It’s not that you want the students to do what you do or adopt your solutions to their problems, but you have to help them work out their own way of progressing. (18) In a very direct manner she would interrogate her students and ask: ‘Why did you put that there?’ Now come on, explain to me why.’ She wanted them to consider alternative solutions while discussing the importance of ‘redundant space’, ‘appropriate intervals between forms’ and the ‘distribution of objects’ within the frame. The expression ‘pictorial incident’ (19) was a catchphrase she used while striving for the effective placement of objects. She always claimed that students taught her more than she taught them. As a printmaker, Prunella was inventive and resourceful, able to work alone on experimental images or alongside a print technician. Graham Sutherland had given her advice on drypoint, etching and aquatint, but she taught herself the complexities of lithography. Later she made photo-lithographs, screen prints and collotypes, combining processes to produce experimental mono-prints. Her graphic techniques found their way into her painting as she broke down the barriers between these traditionally separated disciplines. She was very strict about correct procedures and health and safety regulations in the print studio and cursed and swore at offenders. Despite being a smoker, she never tolerated cigarettes around solvents or inks. She wore training shoes for comfort and a white t-shirt (several sizes too large) as an overall. This became caked in printers’ ink on the left side, where she habitually wiped her right hand. Her failing eyesight was a nagging concern and she was constantly irritated by her dirty spectacles so always kept a box of tissues at hand. Prunella was willing to try anything to create an interesting pictorial result and would sometimes place inked-up objects onto a ‘disobedient canvas’ and then run it through the etching press. The edges became frayed and torn – but this added to the effect. Netting and scrim from the theatre department, paper doylies from the café, circuit boards and wiring from a local electrical shop were pressed into soft-ground etchings, in an attempt to work up valuable textures. Her systematic approach to picture making originated in her disciplined training as a graphic designer, typesetter and map-maker during the war. Once she had worked though all the necessary stages and preparatory phases, producing one indirect mark after another, a magical print would finally appear. Martin Ireland, one of her students, recalls that Pru worked methodically, like a chess player, thinking three images ahead, each move planned in advance. She knew precisely what she wanted and bided her time until she achieved the required effect – perhaps it didn’t appear until two weeks later. (20) Titles usually came while the painting or printing process was underway or after the work was completed. Often she felt that the image required no descriptive assistance and applied the epithet Untitled to it. At other times she would select the singularly appropriate titles such as Package Piece or Constellation or By the Seaside. Prunella’s early work, depicting fishermen, lorry drivers and Thames-side cranes, was obviously anchored by figuration, despite the geometric treatments and habitual flattenings of form. Her later work, with its richly varied surfaces adorned with enigmatic contours and puzzling silhouettes, has often been categorised as abstract. Nevertheless it was always rooted in something seen or recalled. She claimed to have never painted an abstract picture: Nothing that I do is abstract. I can locate all the ingredients of a painting in the richness of the outside world, the world of perception...If I take a thing from the real world, detach it and put it into a painting, something takes over that goes further than anything that I can logically describe or assess. (21)

Far from being immediate responses to, or direct representations of the observed world, Prunella’s paintings are the products of several layers of experience and ritual. Her creative stages included aspects of observation, filtered memory, accumulated understanding and hands-on experimentation with materials. Furthermore, there was an on-going dialogue with well-worked themes and motifs – fragments from the unconsidered wastelands of the modern ‘urbscape’, as she called it. Drawing, note-taking and photography also played their part and when these creative processes collided, a painting might emerge. In 1982 I quizzed her over where her inspiration predominantly lay – was it in what her eye perceived or in what she imagined. She replied: Where do the paintings come from – would be a better question. Just glanced at – perhaps in passing, noticed rather than stared at. Something that settles on you and not something studied. Observation, detachment, replacement. (22)

Notes: 1. Whenever Prunella visited Gordon Hargreaves for drinks or for dinner, she would go to his little studio and assess his latest work.

2. Martin Ireland often accompanied Prunella on these ‘break-ins’. They shared an interest in photographing decaying and dereliction.

3. See Cave, 1990, Frances Spalding Prunella Clough ‘regions unmapped’ 2012, p.212 no:129; Trellis 1991 p.62

4. Prunella Clough, from Unpublished Notes, 1958.

5. From an interview with Gerard Hastings, June 1982.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. See Fence, Climbing Plant, 1978, Frances Spalding Prunella Clough ‘regions unmapped’ 2012, p.199 no:122

9. Professor John Ball, a friend and collector, frequently told this story. When he bought Gate I/Grey Gate I, 1979. Prunella told him that she had tried several newspapers to achieve the desired mottled effect that she was looking for.

10. See Electrical Installation, 1959, Frances Spalding Prunella Clough’regions unmapped’ 2012, p.133 no:86

11. From conversations with John Ball.

12. From conversations with John Ball.

13. From an interview with Bryan Robertson, 1996.

14. From an interview with Gerard Hastings, op. cit.

15. From an interview with Bryan Robertson, 1982.

16. See Man by Fence, 1958, Frances Spalding Prunella Clough ‘regions unmapped’ 2012, p.121 no:71

17. See Barrels in a Yard, 1955, p.39.

18. From an interview with Gerard Hastings, op. cit..

19. This tough, interrogational approach was typical of her teaching method whenever I was present as she discussed Gordon Hargreaves’ work. Prunella’s students agree that her direct, cross-examinations left no place to hide.

20. Martin Ireland, from conversations with Gerard Hastings, 2014.

21. Prunella Clough, from an interview with Bryan Robertson, 1996.

22. From an interview with Gerard Hastings, op. cit.

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