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