Sorrell On Sorrell

Our new exhibition on the work of the twentieth-century artist and archaeological illustrator Alan Sorrell opens tomorrow (Friday 25th October). The exhibition will shed new light on Sorrell’s work - represented in Museums across the length and breadth of the British Isles. Alan Powers reminisces with Richard Sorrell about his father’s life and work.

Alan Sorrell’s contemporary at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, the illustrator Barnett Freedman, once told him ‘You’ve got to have a corner’, and Sorrell made historical reconstruction drawings his specialism, a form of work for which he was best known and in which he excelled. ‘Not only did he have this wonderful three-dimensional mind but also a really deep interest in history, which he had all his life, and also in life and the appearance of things. The pictures are very often dramatic, scenes with angry clouds and swirls of smoke.’

This ‘corner’ in Alan Sorrell’s work has dominated public perception at the expense of other aspects of Sorrell’s art, for which the exhibition at the Soane Museum compensates. There were murals, represented by panels from the Festival of Britain showing fishing boats. There are other more mysterious paintings, like The Long Journey. ‘It’s a picture about somebody who has fallen out of tree, and it looks as he’s died, and it looks as if his spirit is going on to another world. That’s what it appears to be about, and the drama of somebody actually dying like that, that’s what appealed to him.’


Alan Sorrell's 'The Long Journey', 1936, signed and dated, pencil, ink and gouache on paper
Alan Sorrell's 'The Long Journey', 1936, signed and dated, pencil, ink and gouache on paper

Sorrell ‘was a rather pessimistic sort of person. He thought that things were in pretty rapid decline and decay. He thought that he was living in a time that was equivalent to late third-century Roman Britain, where there had been all sorts of wonderful things that had happened in the past, and tremendous order, and then everything was falling apart, and things decaying and the barbarians were at the gates. When he came to actually paint illustrations of Saxon settlements in the last dying embers of the Roman Empire, he identified well with that.’ He read the novels of Mary Renault that reconstruct the ancient world but, surprisingly, not those of Rosemary Sutcliff about the end of Roman Britain, for which his drawings would be the perfect accompaniment.

Sorrell’s paintings often have a vein of dark comedy, in which buildings that collapse in earthquakes or are reduced to façades, speak of impending doom. These were comments on his own time, like one that Richard describes of ‘a parade of protestors marching into the sea.’


Alan Sorrell's Self Portrait (detail), signed and dated November 1928, pencil, ink and white gouache on paper
Self Portrait (detail), signed and dated November 1928, pencil, ink and white gouache on paper


In some ways, Sorrell lived in opposition to the modern world, seldom going to the cinema, even though his sweeping panoramas often evoke cinematic inventions. In Richard’s recollection, he never pressed the shutter of a camera to take a photograph. ‘My father’s relationship to photography was really, really, fierce, you know, he really hated photography, and again, he was from that period when artists really did feel themselves to be actually in competition with photography. He was very much a delineator. That was the way he approached things – through line, and through the comparison of shapes, and lines, whereas photography is about blocks, about edges.’

Richard explains this opposition to photography in terms of a longer history of the schism between the largely content-less observational painting of the French Impressionists and its influence in England on one hand, and the persistence into the twentieth century of a Pre-Raphaelite tradition of imaginative and moralistic subject painting, to which he himself belonged. Sorrell was an avid reader of William Holman-Hunt’s autobiography, with its description of painting The Scapegoat on the shores of the Dead Sea. He took this as a model both of accurate pictorial description for his own reconstruction drawings, and of the artist’s need to endure physical hardship, such as he experienced in his expeditions to Greece, Nubia and Egypt in the company of archaeologists.

Sorrell was not passive in the face of advancing modernity. Living as he did in a part of Essex near the Thames Estuary that was continuously threatened with development, he ran one-man campaigns to save the countryside.  ‘Of course it wasn’t called conservation then, it was just preventing the building of great huge estates of speculative bungalows. He was really active in going around from house to house getting hundreds of signatures. There are large bits of that part of Essex that are now preserved, which would have been built over. Since then, people have decided that this really is a threat to the whole of the world, and so in that way he was ahead of his time, in that kind of attitude.’

Richard does not think his father ever visited the Soane Museum – a sad omission, given how many connections he might have found there, from the social satire of Hogarth to Piranesi’s dark skies over Paestum and J M Gandy’s drawings of the imagined future ruins of the Bank of England, apart from the many archaeological finds displayed in a profusion that could be said to mirror the richness in his own mind as well as his sense of Stoic endurance.


Alan Sorrell's Benvenuto Cellini Escaping from Rome, signed and dated 1949, pencil and gouache on paper
Benvenuto Cellini Escaping from Rome, signed and dated 1949, pencil and gouache on paper



'Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed' runs from 25 October 2013 to 25 January 2014.  A fully colour-illustrated book to accompany the exhibition is available to purchase from the Soane Shop and online priced £25.

During the exhibition, look out for a series of highlights from Soane’s collection representing ‘Archaeological Speculations’ to be published on the Soane blog.

This article is taken from the Autumn 2013 edition of The SOANE Magazine, which is free to all members of the Soane Supporters’ Circle.

Posted on 24 October 2013 in The SOANE Magazine
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