Meet Alan Sorrell, a forgotten artist and prophet

An exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is to unearth this remarkable English visionary of archaeological sites and mermaids alike

Metres of mermaids … Sorrell’s mural was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain

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.

Unearthing the past … Sorrell made striking reconstructions of archaeological sites such as Silchester

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.

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