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.