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Who is Prunella Clough?

Prunella Clough was born in London in 1919. Her family holidayed regularly in Southwold in Suffolk in the 1940s, and Prunella Clough was drawn to the bustle of the nearby fishing ports of Aldeburgh and Lowestoft.

She painted fishermen, dockworkers and lorry drivers surrounded by fishing sheds, boats, nets, floats and boxes of fish. This early interest in ordinary semi-industrial working places and objects would inspire much of her later work.

Fishermen with Sprats

Fishermen with Sprats 1948

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Pembroke College Oxford JCR Art Collection

In the 1950s, Clough turned her attention to industrial buildings and workers and the often-overlooked edges of cities where factories dwindle to wasteland.

Her paintings became more abstract in the late 1950s and 1960s and she began to focus on shapes and textures.

Landscape in a Mining Area

Landscape in a Mining Area 1956

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Museums Sheffield

Clough was an important artist in the post-war years and her paintings were exhibited regularly in commercial galleries and public exhibitions during the 1950s, including in a highly acclaimed retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1960. She continued painting and experimenting with abstraction into the 1980s and 1990s using shop displays of brightly coloured plastic goods and the urban detritus that she saw on the streets of North London as her inspiration.

Discussion: starting points

Throughout her career Prunella Clough took photographs as source material for her paintings. She was inspired by the everyday ordinary things that people often walk past without a second glance.

Look at the photographs below with your students and discuss what they show.

  • Do the objects look familiar?
  • Where might you see objects and displays such as these?
  • Do you find the photographs interesting or boring?
  • Do you think the objects have anything to do with art?

  • If students were challenged to use these photographs as the starting point for an artwork, what would they plan? 

As a class think and discuss ideas around how the objects in the photographs could be a starting point for an artwork. (For example, the simple shapes and bold colours could be used as inspiration for abstract artworks; or the objects might suggest themes such as shopping and consumerism, domestic work or plastics and recycling that could be explored in art.)

Comparison activity: from photograph to painting

Task students with comparing the source photograph and painting below and noting down any thoughts they have about how Prunella Clough used the photograph to inspire the painting. They could do this individually or in small groups and then share their ideas as a class.

These prompt questions may be helpful:

  • describe the painting.
  • is it an abstract painting or do you think it represents something?
  • do you recognise anything from the photograph in the painting?
  • has Prunella Clough used the photograph directly or has she chosen selected objects or areas of the photographs?
  • what do you think it is about the source photographs that Clough was inspired by?

Comparison thoughts

The photograph (or one very similar) seems to have been used by Prunella Clough as inspiration for her painting Household Goods (1989).

Rather than copying the photograph directly, she has selected a small section of it for her composition – focusing on a wire rack with brooms and mops leaning against it. She has added a pastel-coloured umbrella shape in front.

The horizontal lines of the rack and vertical lines of the mop and broom handles, cropped from the wider context of the shopfront display, create an abstract composition of geometric shapes. Clough has simplified the mop heads to form irregular abstract shapes and overlaid these against the geometry of the white lines.

The colourful umbrella shape might be inspired by the feather dusters piled in front or the conical stand full of mugs on the other side of the shop door – what do you think?

Clough was interested in the juxtaposition of the different shapes (geometric and irregular) as well as the colours. Although inspired by real objects, it is the abstract elements of the source photograph that particularly inspired her.

Industrial landscapes

In the 1950s Prunella Clough began to paint industrial scenes and landscapes. She depicted work yards, coal mines, quarries, factories, machinery and men and women at work.  As well as exploring the outlying areas of London she travelled to the Midlands and the North of England.

Grand Union Canal

Grand Union Canal c.1951

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Jerwood Collection

In the late 1950s, the compositions of her paintings became more abstract as she focused on the shapes, structures and textures of what she saw.

Look at the paintings in the carousel below with your students. (You can see larger versions by clicking on the images.)

  • What do the paintings show? Can you spot landscape elements, structures, vehicles or people?
  • Are they straightforward depictions of industrial scenes or has she abstracted them? (How has she abstracted them?)
  • What do you think interested Prunella Clough about these industrial scenes? (What has she focused on?)

Documenting the industrial: source photographs and notebooks

Prunella Clough took hundreds of photographs of industrial scenes in the 1950s and 1960s which she used to inspire the compositions of her paintings.

  • Compare these photographs with the paintings above.
  • Discuss how she used photography in developing ideas for her paintings.
  • Did she use whole scenes from photographs or choose details to focus on?
  • What do you think of the photographs? Are they carefully composed and technically perfect?

About the paintings and photographs

The paintings show industrial yards, structures, machinery and vehicles. Rather than showing whole scenes, we see segments of scenes. This makes us more aware of the shapes and how they relate to each other. It also makes us more aware of the surfaces and textures.

The photographs are not technically perfect. They are often wonky, with buildings and objects cut off or strangely framed. Clough used photography as a quick and simple way of recording what she saw, focusing on textures and shapes. (Some of her photographs are splashed with paint suggesting she looked at them for reference as she painted.)

Notebooks vs photographs

As well as taking photographs as source material Prunella Clough also used notebooks to jot down her responses to the things she saw.

This is a page from one of Prunella Clough's notebooks from the 1960s (a transcript of the notes is shown below the image).

Ask students to consider the type of things that Prunella Clough wrote in her notebooks, and why they think she used notebooks as well as photographs to record the things she saw.

  • What did she note down?
  • Why do you think that she made notes as well as took photographs?
  • Do the notes record the same things as the photographs?

Page from Clough's notebook containing notes on scenes and paintings, 1951–1970

Page from Clough's notebook containing notes on scenes and paintings, 1951–1970

Broken dull vir[idian] / black gate slats tied
with brilliant green cable.

65 [?] brown grey rust tailboard etc
one strong blue slat [?] at cab end of empty lorry.

...

Jan 67

ziz-zag fence/wall 3 way
green stain on v. grainy concrete posts
sq. grid
heavier garden fence sections
dead plants. engineering bricks

About the notebooks

In her notebooks from the 1950s and 1960s Prunella Clough noted down everything from what people are doing (in factories and industrial yards) to details such as damp patches or flaking paint on walls and fences.

As her photographs are black and white, the notes provided extra information about colours but also noted down the atmosphere of places, the sounds the smells and her reaction to what she saw and experienced. The notebooks complemented her photographs – adding information and details that photography cannot capture.

Secondary source material: inspiration from other artists

Alongside using primary source material such as photographs, sketches and notes, Clough was also inspired by looking at paintings by other artists.

In 1958 she visited an exhibition of Jackson Pollock's paintings at The Whitechapel Gallery in London and in 1959 she saw paintings by other Abstract Expressionist artists including Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell at Tate.

The paintings encouraged her to experiment further with compositions, textures, expressive brush marks and abstract shapes in order to, as she put it, see the world 'as if it were strange and unfamiliar'.

Task students with comparing the paintings below by Prunella Clough and Jackson Pollock.

  • Describe the compositions of the paintings. How are the shapes and marks arranged across the surface of the painting? Is there a single focus?
  • Describe the surface of the paintings. How have the artists applied the paint?
  • Do you recognise anything from the visible world in the paintings or are they completely abstract?

Painting thoughts

  • Unlike the compositions of many traditional artworks, there is no single focal point in these paintings. They could be described as 'all over' compositions with the marks and shapes drawing our eyes around the paintings.
  • Both artists have used loose, expressive marks. But Jackson Pollock dripped and poured much of his paint onto the canvas while Prunella Clough used brushes and other tools to paint with.
  • At first glance, both paintings look completely abstract with no obvious reference to the visible world. But if you look closely at Clough's painting, there are shapes that suggest buildings, window frames and chimneys. Can you spot them?

Keeping it real

Although many of Prunella Clough's paintings from the 1960s and 1970s look completely abstract, they still have their source in the landscapes, buildings, objects and textures that she saw around her.

Jackson Pollock was not interested in representing objects from the visible world. Like other Abstract Expressionist artists, he used painting to explore colour, mark-making and composition. Clough insisted that all her paintings had their origins 'in the richness of the outside world'.

Experiments with abstraction

Cropping and scale

Prunella Clough was interested in the abstract qualities of everyday things.

As well as cropping her source photographs, she also enlarged details from them so that they filled the composition of her paintings. We cannot always tell if we are looking at something that is huge or tiny. 

Look at this painting as a class.

  • What do you think it shows?
  • Do you think it represents something large like a landscape or a detail of a small object?

Electrical Landscape

Electrical Landscape 1960

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

National Galleries of Scotland

Paintings thoughts

Electrical Landscape shows an abstracted view of an industrial structure. The blues and whites of the painting make us think of the glare of electricity and the details look like the filaments that might be found on a pylon. But the painting could also be a small circuit board with the lines suggesting wires.

Textures and surfaces

Prunella Clough was fascinated by textures and surfaces. Thickly textured paint can be seen in her early paintings of fishermen, and by the late 1960s and 1970s texture seems to be the main focus of many of her paintings.

Descriptions of surfaces appear regularly in her notebooks and her photographs often focus on textures – the rough walls of buildings, the ridged corrugated surfaces of fences, the peeling paint of doors and the textures of piles of rubbish or rope.

Analysis activity: abstracting textures

  • Ask students to look at the photographs and paintings in the carousel below and analyse the textures. (The photographs are not the exact source material that Prunella Clough used for the paintings, but they provide an idea of the type of object and surface she photographed to inform her paintings.)
  • Students could work in small groups to discuss and note down their thoughts and then share these with the rest of the class.

These prompts might help:

  • Describe the paintings. Are they abstract or do they represent objects? What textures can you see?
  • What objects and surfaces can you see in the photographs?
  • How has Prunella Clough used marks, lines, colour and composition in the paintings to recreate the textures that she saw around her?
  • Does knowing that her abstract paintings are all based on objects from the real world make any difference to how you look at them?

Activity: wander, explore and record

Prunella Clough was an avid wanderer: from the fishing ports she visited on family holidays in the 1940s, to the industrial landscapes she travelled to in the 1950s and 1960s and the London streets she explored in the 1980s and 1990s.

She photographed, sketched and even collected objects and fragments of urban detritus that caught her eye to use in her work. She also noted down the things she saw and her impressions and ideas about them.

The task

Task students with recording a walk as a homework project. This could be their journey from school or a day out. Or they could record their activities and the things that they see over a weekend.

This activity will provide students with a bank of images, details, ideas, notes and sketches that they can draw upon for an artwork.

Their records might include:

  • Photographs of things that catch their eye. These could be as different as a construction site, a plastic bag caught in a fence, a detail from nature or a friend or family member quietly reading or watching TV.

  • Notes describing details, noises, things they overhear, signage that makes them smile, atmospheres and their reactions to what they see and experience. (They could also record sounds or film incidental things on their phones.)
  • Quick sketches of objects, shapes or scenes.

Prunella Clough's notebook containing notes for paintings, 1987

Prunella Clough's notebook containing notes for paintings, 1987

  • Objects or ephemera such as bus tickets, discarded crushed coke cans or brightly coloured leaves.

This research might lead to ideas for an artwork. Encourage students to sketch or note down ideas as they think of them

Possible outcomes

You could ask students to share some of what they have collected with the rest of the class.

  • Ask them to talk about what they found interesting about the things they recorded
  • Did it make them see ordinary, everyday things in a new way?

Task them with developing an artwork using their source material:

  • this could be an abstracted artwork inspired by Prunella Clough
  • a narrative artwork inspired by an incident they saw
  • a mixed media artwork using some of the photographs or ephemera that they have gathered
  • or a still life inspired by an object or photograph.

Mesh with Glove

Mesh with Glove 1980

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Activity: abstracting the everyday

In this resource we discovered that Prunella Clough often honed in on details of scenes that she found interesting, focusing on shapes or textures.

Task students with creating an abstract artwork inspired by a detail of a photograph. This could be a photograph that they have taken of a place, object or scene such as a shop window, a busy street or a messy bedroom floor! Or they could use a 'found photograph' from the internet or a magazine. 

Plastic flowers, brooms, and sponges in boxes and buckets outside a shop

Plastic flowers, brooms, and sponges in boxes and buckets outside a shop

1990s, photograph by Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Instruct them to choose a section of the image that they find interesting. It might be interesting because of its shapes, colours or textures.

Use the image crop as the starting point for an abstracted artwork. Encourage students to fill their composition with shapes and/or textures – so that we lose the context of the original objects or scenes and the work becomes abstracted.

Urban Detail

Urban Detail 1963

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Government Art Collection

Activity: mixed media postcard challenge

Often interesting ideas can come from playing with techniques and materials as well as surfaces and images.

The aim of this activity is to encourage students to explore and experiment and to not be too precious about the materials and the marks they make or be too concerned with creating a 'finished' artwork.

The District Line

The District Line 1964

Prunella Clough (1919–1999)

Hatton Gallery

You will need: old postcards or photographs to work into (or postcard-size pieces of plain card), and a range of drawing and painting and collage materials.

Research

Alongside her paintings, Prunella Clough created small, experimental, playful artworks using collage and mixed media.

In the 1990s, she created a series of reworked postcards. She made these by working on old postcards with a range of media and materials including fabrics, gold leaf, powder paint and modelling clay. She often juxtaposed fragments of sharp detail against scumbled surfaces and brightly coloured shapes against muted backgrounds.

Use the link below to explore these postcard artworks in Tate Archive.

You could ask students to compare these small postcard works to her paintings and consider how they are different. Think about:

  • the materials and techniques she has used
  • why she might have made these small mixed-media artworks
  • do you find them interesting?

Browse the carousel below to see more abstract mixed media artworks that reflect a similarly playful, experimental approach to Clough's.

Experiment!

Experiment with materials.

  • Add torn images from magazines, and found objects such as photographs, packaging, tickets and different types of paper, fabric or other materials to your postcard.
  • Experiment with marks. Find out what your materials can do. Use materials that you wouldn't normally draw or paint with such as a twig or an old toothbrush.
  • Draw lines or shapes, marks and patterns onto the surface of your collage. Think about how these contrast with the torn papers underneath.

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