Prunella Clough

Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes

1951

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 921 x 520 mm
frame: 1033 x 641 x 68 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1993
Reference
T06673

Summary

From the late 1940s until the early 1960s Prunella Clough regularly chose to depict the working man in an industrial setting. Referring to these pictures Clough suggested retrospectively that they were 'an attempt to introduce the figure into a contemporary urban landscape without the devices of the past, without the myths of Mars or Venus or the legends of Breughel. I was trying to update the classical Western concern with the figure without benefit of religious or mythical context' (quoted in Prunella Clough: New Paintings 1979-82, p.3).

Clough often visited the fishing ports along the East Anglian coast and the industrial centres of the Midlands, as well as the streets of London, looking for subject matter. The subsequent pictures were the product of her memories of events or scenes she had encountered. It is not known if Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes refers to a specific memory or if it is a composite of various recollections and imagination. Nor is it known where it was painted, though it is likely to have been in London where Clough lived and worked. The subdued, earthy colours and angular rendering of form are typical of her work in this period.

In his essay for the 1960 retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the critic Michael Middleton suggested that Clough's workmen are the dehumanised automata of the industrial age. The extent to which the figure in Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes is integrated formally and tonally into his environment might support Middleton's assertion that the worker is 'cast into anonymity by an identification with his labour or surroundings so great that it is not always easy at first to disentangle him' (Prunella Clough: a Retrospective Exhibition, p.9). However, the scale of the man in Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes, as in her other paintings of similar subjects, is monumental and the figure is in fact easily distinguished from his surroundings. Contradicting Middleton, Margaret Garlake has suggested that 'Clough's workers are simultaneously defined by and define their work, but they are not reduced to mechanical cyphers. Their absorption is the opposite of alienation; her worker paintings reflect the dignity and value of labour' (Garlake, p.137).

Further reading:
Prunella Clough: a Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1960
Prunella Clough: New Paintings 1979-82,exhibition catalogue, Warwick Arts Trust, London 1982
Prunella Clough, exhibition catalogue, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge 1999
Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, pp.134-7

Toby Treves
October 2000

Display caption

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the ‘common man’ or labourer was a dominant subject for Clough and some of her contemporaries. During the years 1946 to 1949 Clough often visited the coast of East Anglia and this subject is thought to stem from her time there. Although inspired by a certain locality, Clough’s work usually turns the particular and localised into something more universal. She gives a sense of monumentality to the figure occupied in a menial task, while also suggesting the gritty realism of the life of the working man.

Gallery label, September 2016

Technique and condition

The 'Kenton' canvas, manufactured by Winsor and Newton, described in their catalogues as 'a good pure flax canvas of moderate grain', is primed with a white lead/oil ground. The artists stretched the primed canvas onto a stretcher, originally 36 x 20 but keyed out prior to painting.

The work was painted in artists' oil colours, the artist has thinned the paint where required with mixtures of linseed oil and turpentine, probably with 'a trace of dammar resin' (letter to Tate Gallery, September 1993). A thin layer of green mixtures, visible around the edges, underlies the main impasted layers of moderately stiff oil paint applied by knife and brush. Each clearly defined shape has one dominant mixed colour modulated by intermixings and scumbling over with small quantities of other colours and variations in texture. Linear forms are drawn and ruled into the wet paint often with a blunt point. Changes in the composition made during painting remain visible in the structure of the paint where fresh paint was applied over that already touch dry.

The painting was sold in 1951 and was subsequently restretched and varnished while in a frame. The general condition of the painting is good although the canvas had distorted on its twisted stretcher, the paint developed some minor cracks and accumulated some surface grime in its textured surface. On acquisition the surface dirt was removed and the canvas restretched onto a new stretcher with a loose lining.

The new, painted and gilt moulded wood frame, the painting was acquired in, was not the choice of the artist and has been replaced with a simpler frame.

Roy Perry
October 1994