• Alan-Sorrell: Study-of-Mrs-Turner,-for-the-mural-at-Turners-Hardware-shop-in-Hadleigh-High-Street,-circa-1956
    Alan Sorrell: Study of Mrs Turner, for the mural at Turner's Hardware shop in Hadleigh High Street, circa 1956
  • Alan-Sorrell: Mural-I-for-the-canteen-of-John-D.-Francis-Ltd,-Fazakerley,-Liverpool,-1947
    Alan Sorrell: Mural I for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947
  • Alan-Sorrell: Mural-II-for-the-canteen-of-John-D.-Francis-Ltd,-Fazakerley,-Liverpool,-1947
    Alan Sorrell: Mural II for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947
  • Alan-Sorrell: -Part-3,-Illustration-for-The-Broken-Gates,-circa-1950
    Alan Sorrell: Part 3, Illustration for The Broken Gates, circa 1950
  • Alan-Sorrell: Tea-time,-1926
    Alan Sorrell: Tea time, 1926
  • Alan-Sorrell: Book-jacket-design,c.-1920,-
    Alan Sorrell: Book jacket design,c. 1920,
  • Alan-Sorrell: Study-for-Watch-Office,-RAF-Station,-circa-1944
    Alan Sorrell: Study for Watch Office, RAF Station, circa 1944

Alan Sorrell

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) attended the Royal College of Art in the mid-1920s during a period which saw the emergence of talents such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Henry Moore and Barnett Freedman. Although Sorrell’s work has been less well documented his talent was comparable to that of artists more usually associated with the RCA’s formidable reputation during the interwar years.

What were Sorrell’s achievements and how should he be remembered by posterity? During his life Sorrell produced a vast cycle of murals (nearly 20 over a 30-year period). When exhibited for the first time in a generation at the British Murals show organized by Liss Fine Art at The Fine Art Society (London), William Packer described Sorrell’s recently rediscovered Festival of Britain mural as ‘utterly enchanting’ and ‘quite the star of the entire show’, (The Times 2.3.2013 p 91).

Another aspect of Sorrell’s oeuvre which deserves greater recognition are the paintings he produced during WW2. Like many artists of the period, such as Sir Thomas Monnington, Sorrell’s direct experience as an airman resulted in a new perspective – broad horizons and tilted aerial views which were to become the hallmark of his post-war reconstruction drawings. Never an Official War Artist he was able to choose his subjects with relative freedom which resulted in an engaging record of daily life in wartime Britain.

Sorrell’s work as a pre-war artist is relatively little known. Trained at Southend before starting to work as a commercial artist Sorrell subsequently took up a scholarship at the RCA (1924) – an association later strengthened by his period as a teacher there (1931-48). In between he spent two years at the British School at Rome on a Scholarship.

Almost no work survives from Sorrell’s period as an RCA student other than the preparatory drawings with which he competed for his 1928 Rome Scholarship. The RCA archives for this period are much depleted (probably having been destroyed in the war), as a result of which it is hard to gain a fuller picture of this formative period of his life. An equally small body of work has survived from his two years in Rome though his early self-portrait (November 1928) – a masterly fusion of nagging self-doubt and youthful self confidence – hints at the emerging power of his talent. Sorrell recorded his time at the British School at Rome in an unpublished typescript titled Barbarians in Rome in which he paints a vivid picture of life at the school during the years 1928-30.

Returning from Rome in 1930, Sorrell produced some very fine works: Artist in the Campagna (c. 1931), Appian Way (1932), Rocky Formation at Thingvellir (1934), The Long Journey (1936), A Land Fit for Heros (1936). Sorrell’s vision was born out of the Romantic British tradition exemplified by Blake, Palmer and their 20th-century disciples.

Sorrell is principally remembered today as an illustrator of articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News and books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, (more than 15 books over a period of 40 years, the last Reconstructing the Past appearing posthumously in 1981) and for reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage. Through these projects Sorrell played a unique role at a crucial moment in the development of archaeology as a discipline helping it develop from non-specialist to rigorous professional activity. The pioneering archaeologists he worked with read like a roll call of honour: Cyril and Ailen Fox, Dr Kathleen Kenyon, Professor Brian Emery, Mortimer Wheeler, Leonard Woolley, V. E. Nash-Williams, Ian Richmond, James Mellaart, Shepherd Frere and Philip Rahtz. For this and subsequent generations of archaeologists Sorrell’s work holds a special fascination. Out of context some of these drawings can appear dated, but the majority are infused with the qualities of Sorrell’s most evocative work – composed from a dynamic panoramic viewpoint full of imaginative details. This area of specialization, where Sorrell was successful in avoiding the predictable or formulaic, was not a cul de sac into which he withdrew from the artistic mainstream. Sorrell was acutely aware of contemporary issues and the same rigorous approach also inspired his remarkable series of drawings recording the construction of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station (from October 1957 to 1965). A photograph of Sorrell recording the Nuclear Reactor No 4 makes a poignant pair to the photograph of the same period which shows him sketching at Stonehenge.

Sorrell continued to develop his vision consistently over a highly productive half century. His journey was not always easy. Struggling at times financially he also suffered rejection and disappointment – the War Artists Committee turned down his application to become an Official War Artist; he was dismissed from his teaching post at the RCA by Robin Darwin (1948) and failed in his subsequent application to become head of Winchester Art School. And as late as 1964, when he was put forward for election to the RA by John Ward, his candidature was rejected. He was a man of principle: when serving in the RAF he staged a ‘one man mutiny’, refusing to work on terrain models of cities he considered to be of ‘irreplaceable artistic importance’. He was an active environmentalist campaigning in Essex in the mid-1950s to protect local fields, woodlands and hedgerows from urban development.

Sorrell made numerous journeys to distant lands, painting in Iceland (1934), Greece and Turkey (1954), Egypt and the Sudan (1962) where he travelled with a specially made canvas bag designed to stop his materials melting in the sun. A latter-day Holman Hunt, and with some of Holman Hunt’s heroism (!), he faithfully recorded scenes in situ including a remarkable series of over sixty drawings of the villages around Nubia threatened by the building of the High Dam at Aswan (1962). In other pictures his journeys were imagined, dramatic fantasies of falling towers, or trains rushing over viaducts.

As an epitaph for ‘England’s Early Sculptors’ John Piper used a thirteenth century chronicle by Peter Langtoft: ‘the wander wit of Wiltshire’ went to Rome to study the antiquities, but when the antiquaries learnt that he had never seen Stonehenge they sent him back to find inspiration in his own country. This story has a certain resonance with Sorrell’s own artistic journey and ultimately his success in forging a vision which responded to both legacies.

Catalogues with works by Alan Sorrell

Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960

Published: October 2013
352 pages, 130 colour illustrations
ISBN: 978-1-908326-23

Nominated for the William MB Berger Prize for British Art History.

This book is illustrated with a series of specially commissioned photographs that record some of the least known but most remarkable mural cycles in Great Britain. In the vast majority of cases these works have previously only been reproduced in black and white if at all. … Today murals are rarely seen as the artist intended. Often they are partially obscured, especially where there has been a change of building use. Frequently works are completely covered up or painted over – examples include murals by Mary Sargent Florence, Mary Adshead, Eric Ravilious, Dora Carrington, William Roberts and Gilbert Spencer. Where murals survive they are more often than not displaced works. Historic photographs showing John Piper’s The Englishman’s Home at The Festival of Britain, in situ on the river side of the Homes and Gardens Pavilion on Belvedere Road, come as a revelation; a digital reconstruction of Frank Brangwyn’s Empire panels for The House of Lords, seen in situ as they were originally intended, gives a dramatically more favourable impression than their final installation in The Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.

Alan Sorrell - The Life and Works of an English Neo-Romantic Artist

Published: September 2013
208 pages, over 150 illustrations
ISBN: 978-1-908326-37

Chosen one of the best art books of 2013 by Brian Sewell Nominated for the William MB Berger Prize for British Art History.

It is particularly fitting that this book should be published to coincide with the Sir John Soane’s Museum’s aptly titled exhibition: ‘Alan Sorrell – A Life Reconstructed’. This makes it possible at last to assess the full range of Sorrell’s work and the underlying poetic vision that runs through it. Comprising a series of essays the book sets out to chart Sorrell’s life and achievements, as well as illustrating the range and diversity of his talents, most works having never previously been reproduced. … Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) attended the Royal College of Art in the mid-1920s during a period which saw the emergence of talents such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Henry Moore and Barnett Freedman. This book demonstrates that though Sorrell’s work has been less well documented his talent was comparable to that of artists more usually associated with the RCA’s formidable reputation during the interwar years.

Murals & Decorative Painting 1910-1970

Published: February 2013
128 pages 114 illustrations
ISBN: 978-0-9567139-6

The murals that were produced in this country in the twentieth century remain as one of the great inventive achievements in modern British art. Highly original in their approach to design, balancing varying degrees of modernity or tradition, they demonstrate the creative drive of their makers and contain singular expressions of the aesthetic, personal and social concerns that typify the ages from which they come. Some are celebrations of simple human pleasures, perhaps to decorate a refreshment room, an ocean liner or a dining room. Others are intended to be the highest expressions of their art, ambitious allegorical or decorative compositions that like the frescoes of the Renaissance would speak through the ages to later generations. The individuals and committees who commissioned them similarly believed they would both represent the best that Britain had to offer and mark the high accomplishment of contemporary society, elevating the public and private spaces they occupied and inspiring moral purpose.

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