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The romance of the ordinary

Prunella Clough's thoroughly unflashy work recalls a quieter, more modest era in British art

The modernist American poet William Carlos Williams declared in his poem "A Sort of Song" that there were "no ideas but in things". Such a phrase might well describe the output of the late Prunella Clough. She was essentially a painter of landscape and still life, and though in later life her work hovered close to abstraction it was always rooted in the minutiae of the observed world. In the 1940s, when she came of age as an artist, she painted streets, docksides and factories as symbols of modernity, as well as farmers, labourers and the fishermen of Lowestoft engaged in honest toil. These paintings were monochromatic and suffused with the sort of English romanticism associated with her immediate predecessors and peers: John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Robert Colquhoun and Keith Vaughan.

Clough's work was informed by the technical precision she learned from her wartime training as a mapping and engineering draughtsman. When I interviewed her just before her death, she explained how different the postwar London art world had been: hermetic, innocent and slightly xenophobic. There were, she said, few professional painters and even fewer galleries and magazines. London was a grey, bomb-damaged place where poets such as Louis MacNeice rubbed shoulders in down-at-heel Soho pubs with the likes of Francis Bacon. This was reflected in the muted tones of English painting and in the grey realities of Mass Observation.

A retrospective at the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery comprises more than 60 paintings, drawings and reliefs covering Clough's career from the early 1940s until her death in 1999. It encompasses the most important shifts in modern British art from early modernism to conceptualism. Study for a Scene on Ruined Beach (1944), a brooding seascape in muted colours, draws on the Romantic tradition. Man With Goggles and Man With Printing Press, painted in the 1950s, owe something to social realism.

Gradually, as Clough found her own artistic language, her imagery became more abstract. She was influenced by the small and the inci­dental, by urban detritus: a discarded plastic bag caught in a swirl of wind, a broken packing case dropped in a market skip, or a seep of oil that had leeched a dark stain on to a pavement. Splash, painted in the 1970s, shows a black leak that has bled into the ground of yellow pavement beneath. Often it is not until we read the title of a painting that it reveals its association with the real world, as in Mesh with Glove I, 1980, with its almost pointillist blobs of black delineating a wire fence seen close up, or the dark triangular slash placed centrally on the paper in another work, which turns out to be a dressing gown.

Clough spent a lifetime looking not so much at what was centre stage, but at what existed on the margins. "I am an 'eye' person, totally affected by visual facts," she said. She believed the tonal basis for her work had as much to do with the English wind and weather as anything else. "I work from subject matter, things perceived, and the things that I see tend to be somewhat murky." Although her palette was subdued (in this respect she had something in common with the modesty of Gwen John), there are electric moments. An arc of red, yellow and blue is placed among the scrubbed tones of Still Life to pull the eye towards the horizon. In Sweet Jar (1992), a cluster of brightly coloured circles seems to have fallen to the bottom edge of an otherwise black and white canvas.

Once referred to as "the best-kept secret in British art", Clough is often spoken of as "an artist's artist". Consistently acknowledged by her peers to be among the most distinguished painters of the postwar period, she was never widely celebrated in her life. When she won the Jerwood Prize just before her death, the Times referred rather patronisingly to "a little-known artist" of 80, as if she were some sort of parvenu, as opposed to someone who had been teaching and painting for half a century. This may partly be because Clough never sought the limelight. There is something quintessentially unflashy about her paintings. She was modest both in her demeanour and in the scale of her work - though never in her determination to capture something original, spare and true.

Her abstracted forms, underpinned by initial traces of drawing, insinuate themselves into the mind of the viewer. Although figures were absent from her later work, a recently departed presence is often suggested. Each canvas holds its own space with a quiet yet muscular rectitude. There is a quirky strangeness about them, a feel of something slightly odd and uncanny.

As she told Michael Middleton in an interview nearly 50 years ago, "I like paintings that say a small thing rather edgily." Clough's ability to draw our attention to the beauty and pathos in the ordinary is deliciously out of sync with times in which sound and fury often signify so little. Hers is an unobtrusive but unique voice.

"Prunella Clough" is at Annely Juda Fine Art, London W1, until 21 March. For more details, log on to: www.annelyjudafineart.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009