Prunella Clough, the poet's painter?

I’ve been wondering why Prunella Clough isn’t more famous, or at least as famous as some of her male contemporaries, such as John Piper and Frank Auerbach. Is it because she was a woman? Her subject matter was anything but ‘feminine’: dockyards and quarries, building sites and scrap yards. Like Auerbach, she painted the post-war industrial wastelands of Britain and was fascinated by their by-products: corrugated metal, concrete, tangled wire. But these were never figurative representations like the American murals of the WPA artists a generation before. David Sylvester wrote of her work: 'the subjects are those of a social realist; the paintings are private and abstract.’ It’s as if these disused spaces became a way of expressing something internal; although many of the late landscapes were emptied of people, they were always places where human industry had once occurred. And although she had a life-long attraction to East Anglia, she was essentially an urban painter, a London painter, trawling unloved corners of Battersea and Wandsworth for inspiration. She was interested in patterns and forms, grids and blocks, which were almost always man-made, but also accidental in the wearing down or tearing up of things.

This interest in pattern and form is what should attract poets to her. There are certain painters who are beloved of poets, such as Bonnard and Hopper and Rothko. Perhaps Clough’s work is too spiky, too mysterious in comparison, not beautiful enough? But I would argue that she is able to transform the drab and common into something miraculous (isn’t that what poets do too?). She is attempting to get us to look more closely, to observe with our eyes and minds. And she often recorded the experience of 'looking’ initially in words rather than sketches before embarking on a painting; she made notes on all her paintings, right down to colour combinations and ideas for what she wished to achieve. She did write poetry – I have no idea if any of her poems are in print – but I can imagine they are small but full of intricate detail.

Frances Spalding’s book on Clough is due to be published early next year. Can’t wait …