Prunella Clough: Mine Head, 1970

Hidden Treasures from the Camden Collection

“Each painting is an exploration in unknown country, or as Manet said, it is like throwing oneself into the sea in order to learn to swim.” - Prunella Clough

Prunella Clough was born on the 11th of November, 1919. Almost a decade ago later, her work is still the topic of conflicting opinion: brushed aside by some as a ‘tiny talent’ who would not have been remembered ‘had she been a man’ (Evening Standard, 2004) yet celebrated by others as an artist of great sensibility and vigour who defied subversion to the ever-expanding art market. Instead, she regularly did away with her works, on one occasion going so far as to clear out her studio in an extravagant bonanza-style-sale, boasting bottom prices as if she were a car salesman (The Guardian, 30 March 2012).

All differences aside, the Camden acquisition ‘Mine Head’ is one of three Clough lithographs that are currently being held in the collection. The others are ‘Tideline’ and ‘Manhole 1’. They represent the various stages of the artist’s artistic development throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 1970’s, becoming increasingly abstract with time. Her scenes, often inspired by the industrial, British landscape, represent small sites of ‘wasteland’: areas, scenes, or people that are somewhat existing ‘in between’. They are scenes of labour, machinery, the tide flowing into the harbour. They are also, incidentally, spaces controlled by men, especially in that era. They are scenes of life being constructed in all its filth, its wear and tear, its tiredness and relentless need for productivity. These are not fashionable imaginaries, being promoted as advertisements for a better life, or as the utopian dreams of the naïve artist. They are very much grounded in the cold mud of reality, even as the images become more abstract. Her technique of layering, scraping, covering and extracting, treating the surface as if it were part of the scene, incorporating steel wool, mesh, plastic and sand, reflects that grounding. 

Born in 1919, Clough was a descendant of Irish aristocracy - yet you wouldn't know it. Known widely for her privacy and ‘aloof’ attitude towards friendships and other relations, ‘intimate’ is probably not the word people would use to describe her. A lover of parties and a close friend of the critic John Berger, Clough always remains somewhat of a mystery, distant and secluded. A lifelong London resident, she both studied and taught at the Chelsea School of Art, working briefly as a cartographer during WW2. She was known for her tireless working ethic, and sold well enough to support herself throughout her life, it seems, although major recognition such as that of her peers John Minton and Lucian Freud was never achieved. She was celebrated with numerous major exhibitions: at the Whitechapel, the Serpentine, the Camden Arts Centre and, posthumously, at Tate Britain. She worked and produced until her death in 1999.

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Prunella Clough, Mine head, 1970. Courtesy of the estate of Prunella Clough. All rights reserved.

If we were to playfully approach ‘Mine Head’ as a self-portrait (as every artwork is, to an extent, a reflection of its producer) there are some thoughts that are worth considering in the debate of her ‘artistic value,’ sketched in such contrast by the Guardian and Evening Standard. Is this the ‘face’ of a tiny talent that failed to carve out her place in the history of male painters? Or are we looking at someone who never wished to conform, who could not care less about the opinion of men or the selling value of her work in a world in which artistic appreciation is sometimes largely motivated by ‘coming out on top’? Is the distance, felt by others in Clough’s private life, not also the strategy she deploys when looking at her subjects, a necessary objectivity through which to approach reality without giving in to frivolity or pretense?

Her sense of simplicity, combined with a ‘formidable sensibility’ and an aversion to becoming part of the canon, is reflected in both the object of representation, the inanimate structures of the industrial crane, as well as its placement within a cropped frame, alone and without a backdrop.

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The Camden Art Collection comprises a rich variety of works dating from the late 1950s to today, by artists who have had a strong connection to the borough, including Sandra Blow, Jean Cooke, John Bratby, Maggie Hambling, Derek Jarman, Prunella Clough, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Wilhemina Barns-Graham and limited edition works on paper by David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. For more information visit our online archive.

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