An exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is to unearth this remarkable English visionary of archaeological sites and mermaids alike
It’s hard to believe that the sexy mermaids are the work of the same nervy man in the self-portrait hung beside them: it just goes to show, say the curators of a new exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, the forgotten richness of the work of artist Alan Sorrell.
The mermaids only barely survived to bear witness to the jolly side of an artist whose life and work were full of shadows, including his striking reconstructions of archaeological sites in England such as Old Sarum and Silchester.
They were commissioned for the bar on the HMS Campania which in 1951 became a floating exhibition space in the Festival of Britain. They were then given to Harlow New Town, which never had space to hang the full, nine-metre rollicking procession of fish, boats and fishy women. The panels were pitch black after a storeroom fire when art dealer Paul Liss acquired them and had them restored. He hopes that after the exhibition they will find a permanent home in the National Maritime Museum.
Sorrell was born in 1904 in Southend, son of a jewellery shop owner who had himself yearned to be an artist. He was a sickly child with a stammer, who didn’t go to school until he was 10 and never recovered from the early death of his mother, according to his son Richard, who lent many of the works for the show.
His talent was unmistakable in beautiful early drawings, and he won a coveted two-year scholarship to the British School in Rome in the 1920s. But this actually blighted his career, according to art historian Sasha Llewellyn, co-author of the exhibition catalogue. “It was the same with many of the Rome school artists,” she says. “They were steeped in the classical world and it left them out of step with the modernist movement in art, so their work was already seen as out of date when they completed it.”
Sorrell failed to be appointed an official war artist – though the show includes striking war images – and in 1948 lost his teaching job in a reshuffle at the Royal College of Art. While many of his contemporaries, including Eric Ravilious, became household names, he never made it out of the shadows – yet his archaeological work survives in many standard texts, and his reconstruction drawings on display panels at many sites. He died in 1974, but in 2010 there was a cheer from his descendants when archaeologists announced they had found the oldest house in England dating from 8,500 BC, at the Star Carr Mesolithic site in north Yorkshire. When Sorrell had made reconstruction drawings of the site decades earlier, he insisted there must have been houses, but was forced by experts to leave them out.
The exhibition itself is almost an excavation, said Soane’s curator Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski, uncovering Sorrell’s life and work for a new generation. “To so many people now, his name means nothing – and yet so many will instantly recognise his style as soon as they see it, remembering it from books they admired in childhood – as I did myself,” he said. “He deserves to be remembered.”