Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed (Soane Museum)


The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

The poster outside the Soane and the 1928 self-portrait

Sir John Soane’s Museum is the most fitting setting for the first major survey of Alan Sorrell’s oeuvre. Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) was an English artist who worked in multiple mediums, but is best known for his archeological illustrations. Like Sir John Soane, an architect who became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Sorrell was a draughtsman who became Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at The Royal College of Art. Soane and Sorrell succeeded in their craft so much so that they enabled future artists to work as well as they did within the academic tradition. Framing Sorrell’s work inside the Soane’s Museum encourages viewers to engage and interpret the art like a new student discovering line, shape and colour in a new light.

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130

Old Sarum Cathedral from the south-east, as it probably appeared in about 1130


Sorrell is best known for his reconstruction drawings of British historical sites; Prehistoric, Roman and medieval. Similar to his commercial work as an illustrator (his patterns and book designs are on display as well), Sorrell captures the balance between shape and colour. The systematic attention to detail and the artistic sense of imagination creates compelling works on paper. Even though Sorrell is remembered for these drawings, I found the most compelling pieces in the exhibition to be the two self-portraits that give an intimate lens into his personal artistic process.

Self-Portrait (1928) is a drawing that Sorrell created once he arrived in Rome during his artistic endeavors. The quality of his draughtsmanship is so apparent that it begins to bleed into the viewer’s space. Pencil, ink and white gouache illuminate and stain the paper, producing an expressive moment with the artist at work. As Sorrell hunches before his easel, he looks straight out at the viewer. The contrast between the dark ink and bright gouache emphasizes the deep folds of the fabric on his body and the draped cloth beside him. The jagged edges seen throughout the composition further confront the viewer with a feeling of restlessness. The eye darts from Sorrell’s high cheekbones to his pursed lips and furrowed brow and then towards the working-sketch of the hanging lamp and multiple canvases in the background and then back to the foreground to notice the different depictions of each of the fold in his stockings. This eye movement around the image creates an entertaining (and instructive) mapping experience for the viewer.

Sorrell's late 1930s portrait

Sorrell’s late 1930s portrait

Furthermore, it becomes readily apparent that his talent is not limited to drawing when observing Sorrell’s later painting, Self-Portrait (late 1930s). Here, the artist has decidedly zoomed in to focus on his face during the artistic act of creation. His sharp gaze is literally parallel to the vertical and sharply pointed pencil in his hand. The attention to line and its function is present in his drawings and his paintings. Soane would most probably approve of Sorrell exhibiting in his home, and expanding his reputation among other artworks. The quality of Sorrell’s talent is clear, and the way he peers into the viewers’ eye he leaves no room for skepticism.

Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed was at the Soane Museum from the 25th October 2013 to the 25th January 2014.

See here for more information on Sorrell and the book associated with the exhibition.

Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.

The Visual Arts and Music in Renaissance Europe c 1400-1650 (Second Annual Postgraduate Renaissance Symposium, 18 January 2014)

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

It is not every Courtauld conference that starts off with a concert in an authentic Gothic interior. But the Renaissance Art and Music programme has been an exploratory endeavour throughout. On a moonlit Friday evening, the Amaryllis Consort regaled an audience in the Temple Church with music from the high Baroque, Burgundian Gothic and English Renaissance schools to much applause. However, visual references were confined to our programmes, and it was not until after the next dawn that images would take the commanding focus of the lecture theatre’s projector.

Professor Thomas Schmidt’s keynote took as its main theme a giant choirbook in Jena, considering an illuminated folio of a chant of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin beyond a usual iconographical analysis. The arrangement on the page of the four parts, their page-turning rubrics, and how the donors’ figures would work as ever-present supplicants to the Marian prayer being sung all went together to manifest the sort of four-part polyphonic performance we had witnessed in the Temple into a tangible artefact.

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

These themes were restated and developed throughout the day. Moritz Kelber’s paper picked up on the meeting of note and page with a “singing shield” at the beginning of some printed musical scores for the diet of Ferdinand I. A coat of arms emblazoned with a solmized representation of the name of German Emperor was presented as “eye music”, where the score itself could make visual play with the musical script. Brian Keene’s paper on a dismembered antiphonary from the Carmelite Friary in Florence placed it within the daily life of the church, but also explored its creation through the agency of the friars, lay confraternity members and of course the artists who laboured on the church’s manuscripts and frescoes.

But the day was not just about objects that were at the centre of musical performance, but also reflections of it.  Alex Robinson’s consideration of paintings of balls and ceremonies in the court of Henri IV showed how bands of musicians were more often convenient cultural signs than accurate records. Kelly Lam’s analysis of The Music Lesson, a National Gallery canvas newly attributed to Titian, also showed paintings as untrustworthy documents: the bass viol (which Titian himself holds in Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) is held in a near unplayable position. Both Simon Jackson, on the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s creative links to the courtly masque and Daniel Walden, on the Garden of the Villa di Pratolino, relied heavily on textual accounts and documentary evidence to recreate even more ephemeral displays and the intellectual and musical culture around them.

Titian - The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

Titian – The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

This conference by no means solved the inherent epistemological problems on how much we can ever know about creative links between visual artists and musicians, and how the dual experience of their outputs was received by contemporary audiences. Like the concert the night before, the truth of the experience can only be completely accessible to those who were there.

Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 (Ben Uri Gallery)

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

Ben Uri Gallery, 102, Boundary Road, NW8

To venture to the Ben Uri Gallery in NW8 is to arrive at, quite literally, a shop front – which once penetrated, courtesy of a common entry-bell, opens out into a wealth of treasures, some of which would not be out of place in the best-renowned museums of the world. Some of the exhibits in the current show are no exception.  The conception driving this exhibition is, however, simple but powerful: fifty works spanning the first fifty years of The London Group in all its modernist radicality.

Crammed into its two (ground and basement) floors, this catholic selection makes for much neck-turning. Just as one espies a small Gaudier bronze bird swallowing a fish in 1914, Gertler’s light-footed, supple Eve diverts the gaze to an act of creation, made in the same year. Some artistic groups immediately conjure up a style (the psychologically intense painterliness of Bloomsbury) or avant-garde controversy (the primal, even feral, rawness of Vorticism) or specific, not always accurate, reputations (the supposedly bloodless precision of the Euston Road School).

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,  looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

The reviewer with Sarah MacDougall, one of the exhibition’s two curators,
looking at Fry’s Nina Hamnett, foregrounded by Gaudier’s hungry bird

It would be difficult to jam the London Group into any such category – from the deceptively gentle, astute realism of Harold Gilman’s enigmatic portrait of Sylvia Gosse (1912-13, a rare image of her) via Roger Fry’s oneiric-realist depiction of Nina Hamnett (1917, lent by the Courtauld) to Bomberg’s hard-edged Ghetto Theatre of 1920 with its regimented, glum but warm togetherness, not to mention later contributions, such as Jessica Dismorr’s positively vibrating abstract forms (1936) and Dorothy Mead’s near-mutilated self-portrait of 1960 emitting the blank chill of the Cold War.

The real value of this exhibition, however, lies in the conversations without words that these paintings conduct quietly with one another: the amazement in Stanislawa de Karlowska’s colourful produce on display at a fruiterer’s in Swiss Cottage (looking back, and reminiscing, from her newly adopted country to her Polish homeland, perhaps) in 1914 conversing with the exaggerated colours of Spencer Gore’s more radical impression(ism) of Gilman’s garden at Letchworth (1912). These are different experiences of Britain, with different eyes and from different backgrounds – but from around the same time – and they each slowly reveal their own viewpoint. And such dialogues reverberate almost endlessly through the exhibition.

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,  oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

William Coldstream, Portrait of Mrs Auden, 1936-37,
oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

Some works break the involved conversations to speak directly to the viewer – none more so, in my view, than Coldstream’s portrait of W.H. Auden’s mother. My turning neck was arrested at this point. This unassuming, but staggeringly immediate portrait in different shades and tones of yellow and brown steals the show. No reproduction can convey the shimmering immediacy of this woman in old age: thin, almost frail yet erect, severe. Apprehensive, strong and vulnerable, she stares into a future where the inevitable outcome must be death, yet the painter urgently but naturally invites further enquiries about her thoughts, feelings and emotions.

For an informative, entertaining and cogent introduction to Modern British art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, it’s worth taking heed of the ‘uproar’ going on in St John’s Wood at the moment.

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Uproar! The First 50 Years of the London Group: 1913-63 is a the Ben Uri Gallery until 2nd March.