A floating world: the enigmatic art of Prunella Clough

Prunella Clough relished the strange and ephemeral, preferring wastelands and industrial imagery to bland pastoralism. 

Prunella Clough was an enigmatic artist, whose work and life offer a paradoxical blend of accessibility and withdrawal. She was both sociable and secluded. Over a long and successful career, she produced a considerable body of highly distinctive work, which has been widely shown: her first exhibition was at London's Leger Gallery in 1947, and her last (the 26th solo show of her career) was at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, in 1999. That was the year of her death, in which she also won the Jerwood Painting Prize. Her name is well known to artists, art historians and collectors. Nevertheless, she continues to attract the dubious label "neglected" - though "elusive" might be a better description. The Tate purchased several of her paintings and prints, but none is on show. They are hiding away somewhere in there, and you can see them only on a computer screen.

One of Clough's most eccentric traits was her desire to keep down the cost of her work. She wanted people to be able to buy her pieces, and insisted on offering them to the public at modest prices. In the modern climate of the market place, where the prices artists command are often more famous than their works, this seems very odd. But it may have seemed less peculiar in her youth, when socialism and the idealistic egalitarianism of the war years were potent forces. It could be objected that this possibility came cheap to her, because she had a moneyed background and didn't need to earn her living. Still, she remained loyal, after her own fashion, to her professed and professional principles.

Clough was born in 1919 into an artistic and literary family: her father was a civil servant and a poet; her mother was the daughter of an amateur painter and sister of the designer Eileen Gray. She was brought up in South Kensington, in comfortable and cultured post-Edwardian middle-class affluence. She was educated at home, but enrolled herself at the Chelsea School of Art in 1938, allegedly discouraged by her mother but encouraged by her aunt. The school's teachers then included Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore (Clough later taught there herself). But the Second World War interrupted her studies and presented her with a world of experience far removed from that of Chelsea and Onslow Square.

During the war, Clough worked as a cartographer for the US War Office of Information, and she spent one grim postwar winter in Holland. The discipline of cartography left a lasting impression. She continued throughout her life to use motifs of grids, nets, boundaries, wires and fences. Images derived from the sea and coastline recur: she drew and painted the seascapes, tide lines and fishermen of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. A watercolour dated around 1942 called Harbour Works is at first sight an attractive and delicate view in soft shades of blue, grey and russet, and seems to confirm the linking of Clough to John Minton, Michael Ayrton and the "neoromantics". But on closer inspection, we see that the russet is rust and the grey represents blocks of cement: this is a harbour grimly defended against attack. Flags, floats, cones, buoys and signals appeared in her work long after the war was over. The contrast between a thin, light but strong geometry and a more fluid, amorphous floating area was always intriguing to her.

In her earlier works, the human figure appears quite frequently, but always in a trade or industrial setting - a woman minding a machine, a printer cleaning a press or checking proofs, a lorry driver in a cab, a man filleting fish. She was drawn to urban and industrial scenes, and what she called "mechanical landscapes" and "murky" tones. As she told her friend and champion Bryan Robertson in 1982, she liked wastelands and "any unconsidered piece of ground". In 1949, in Picture Post, she had declared that for her purpose "a gasometer is as good as a garden, probably better". The choice of such subjects suggests a political attitude, but over the years the human figure withdrew from her work, and she continued to concentrate on the experience of landscape and object, moving towards a kind of abstraction.

Some of her works are described as "still lives", and the domestic matter of a few of her prints might endorse the view that she had a "female sensibility". She drew kippers, peppers, kitchen implements, marrows, pomegranates. These bear some resemblance to Minton's kitchen illustrations, but not much. They are not about cooking or eating. The seeds in the pepper look like little teeth; the pomegranate looks like a pair of spectacles. Some people have seen labial or uterine or breast-like associations floating in her later works, but I see a more austere and androgynous set of images. We know that she related the cone-like shape that appears in her work to her mother's sewing cone, but it does not inhabit either a comfortable or a stifling domestic context. To me, it looks more Delphic, or possibly Masonic. I may be wrong, but I cannot imagine Prunella Clough spending much time knitting or doing needlework. That cone looks more like a message from a distant horizon - semaphore, not sewing.

Angus Stewart has rightly praised Clough's ability to capture "all things strange and ephemeral, such as those ghostly objects which fly across our vision and sometimes remain in the memory", and John Spurling, writing in this magazine in 1976, described her "soft dropping shapes like beads of rain on a grey window-pane". Her much-reworked surfaces often give the impression of looking at two planes at once: one near at hand, where shapes swim organically like floaters on the surface of the eye or like cells under a microscope; the other distant, still and obscure. In many of her prints and drawings, she created a grainy, organic texture that suggests the slow accretions of time itself, and there is often evidence in her paintings of second and third thoughts - we know that she liked to rework with careful deliberation, producing what she called "scraggy" surfaces. So what we see is a mixture of the apparently ephemeral and the deeply planned. We see both the near and the far, the random squiggle of the lively wire and the firm under-lying grid of the map.

Some of Clough's later works (including reliefs found in her studios after her death) have been described as shockingly stark, perhaps reflecting an inner bleakness. A single "found glove" or a collage of fuse wires make for desolate objects. Her predominantly subdued palette, with its northern tones of brown, charcoal, peat, slate and grey, was never immediately cheerful: one of her most desirable and beautifully textured prints shows what look like two dark moons in a dark sky, under a fallout of soot at the end of the world. But there is another side to this darkness. Clough's use of colour, in her later years, was at times light-hearted, vital and capricious - flecks or spots of brightness would suddenly illuminate a whole canvas and bring it to vibrant life. Iridescent, painted in 1987, is an image of irrepressible happiness: like a tropical fish, it startles with its sheer gaiety. And one of her largest oil paintings, Stack, painted in 1993 when she was in her seventies, is an extraordinary celebration of colour. It combines her love of free-floating shapes with her love of solid geometry. The layered stack of bright colours stands proudly in the centre of the canvas, asserting the glory of the world of choice. She must have been very pleased with it.

"Prunella Clough: seeing the world sideways" is at Olympia, London W14 (0870 126 1726) from 2 to 7 March. For further information, visit www.prunellaclough.com