A GREEK farmer, who was a
great lover of all things Mycenaean, led two archaeologists,
Konstantinos Kourouniotis and Carl Blegen, to a hill site inland
from the bay of Navarino, on the west coast of the Peloponnese, in
1938. He reckoned this was "sandy Pylos" at the heart of the fabled
Homeric kingdom of King Nestor.
The following year, the
first trial trench at Epano Englianos, which had to be cut in such
a way as to avoid an olive grove that another farmer refused to
allow to be cut down, found an archive deposit of Linear B tablets,
which confirmed the site's importance.
The Second World War
prevented the excavation of the palatial site, and in 1945
Kourouniotis, who had been searching for ancient Pylos since 1920,
died. The American Blegen recommenced digging in 1952 and later
published the excavation, humorously dedicating the work to "the
goddess who protects the olive tree".
In 1954, the Illustrated
London News featured an article about the extraordinary finds,
with a detailed reconstruction of the 105-room palace of the
Neleids by Alan Sorrell, a former commercial artist and war-time
RAF airman. An illustration of his still appears in the
current guidebook to Pylos, a site which is also undergoing
reconstruction, and will be inaccessible until 2015.
The authorship of this
meticulous drawing is immediately recognisable to anyone who grew
up with the series of illustrated histories that Sorrell produced
in the 1960s, or who benefited by the scholarly guidebooks that
the Ministry for Public Buildings and Works used to provide.
Stonehenge, Verulamium, the great abbeys of Fountains, Melrose, and
Dryburgh, all leapt to life with his characteristic bird's-eye
Unlike the Greeks, the
British seem to have abandoned his evocative and accurately
detailed reconstructions. The latest guides to Old Sarum and
Stonehenge which I bought this summer from English Heritage now
look as if they have been illustrated by someone who designs
computer screens for action games.
But Sorrell (1904-74) was an
insightful artist, and his draft designs often have marginal
queries that he sent to the archaeologists and historians to check
or reconsider. When he drew Roman London, he included a seawall
along the Thames, which the archaeologists insisted was wrong.
Only after his death was evidence of that wall found at
Sorrell had shown early
promise, and in 1928 won the Prix de Rome. Two years at the British
School at Rome, in the heart of Fascist Italy, allowed him time to
travel across the much troubled peninsula and brought him under the
spell of Piero della Francesca, whose great frescoes at Arezzo he
copied. In the library in Rome, he finally read Clive Bell's 1914
Art, and his reading of Cézanne increasingly informed his
neo-Romantic abstract style.
Landscapes became littered
with fragments of a lost past, and forms were reconfigured into
half Romanesque shapes. These translated well to the commercial
demands of the pre-War Post Office and London Transport. A view of
St Mary's, Hendon (for London Transport), in Coronation year,
includes two figures among the tombs, one of whom gestures
heavenward. To a Christian, it could be read as the Archangel
bearing comfort to the young widow. In the light of the onset of
war, the leaden sky almost prefigures the gathering
But it is perhaps only his
reportage work that showed any real inspiration. He had witnessed
the six-day celebration of the marriage of Prince Umberto of Savoy
and Princess Marie José of Belgium in January 1930, and his
watercolour of a night-time carriage procession of King Emmanuel
III surrounded by his own troops, the Corazieri, and Mussolini's
Bersaglieri is atour de forceof Vorticism.
Sorrell was not always a
fortunate man, and, like many holders of the Prix de Rome, he had a
later career that was uneven. He was not appointed as a war artist,
was sacked by the Royal College of Art after nearly 18 years'
teaching, and failed to become head of Winchester Art School. He
seems to have been a prickly man, and his work is presented with
filial piety by a son of his second marriage.
Much of Sorrell's early work
was lost, seemingly with his first marriage, although the little
show in two rooms at Sir John Soane's Museum presents an
interesting but limited artist.
He is perhaps at his best
when at his most pictorial, as in the murals that became a
signature of public art in the 1920s, and which reached an apogee
at the 1951 Festival of Britain.
In 1932, Southend Council
commissioned him for four busy narrative scenes, of which The
Building of Prittlewell Church Tower was shown at the Royal
Academy Summer Exhibition in 1936. Even before his training as an
airman, working for camouflage units, his bird's-eye view is
Sorrell had hoped to be able
to produce a series of modern-life and contemporary scenes, but the
Mayor had other thoughts in mind, and encouraged Sorrell to
portray historic events in the life of the town.
Stanley Spencer would have
made so much more of it; but in the flaxen-headed shepherd boy
following his flock with his cloak caught in the wind, and in the
woman with her babe-in-arms standing next to the church fence,
there are hints of a story that is commonly called Christian;
discrete, effective, and yet pale.
Rather more successful to my
mind, because it is much less crowded, are the panels that he
painted for the Nelson bar on the disused aircraft carrier HMS
Campania when it was transformed into a floating art gallery
during the Festival of Britain in 1951, touring coastal ports and
towns with the work of 60 contemporary artists.
These panels had passed to
Harlow Arts Trust, but have been recently sold off by the council
to Paul Liss, one of the organisers of this exhibition. Here there
is no "dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack", but
Sorrell has painted in the spirit of John Masefield's 1917
"Cargoes". A Thames sailing barge, Orkney yole, Deal galley,
Shetland nessy yole, Norfolk wherry, and Aberdeen fifie are among
the boats that litter the scene like so many pub signs.
Outside his native Essex,
Sorrell received one important church commission in the same year,
which was in the diocese of Chichester, for the nave paintings at
St Peter's, Old Bexhill, in East Sussex. The far-sighted Bishop
George Bell had long sought to encourage his parish clergy to
beautify and celebrate their churches and, while not all such
commissions were successful, the arcade at Old Bexhill still looks
The patron saint of the
diocese is scorned by the phlegmatic St Wilfrith/Wilfrid on one
side of the arch, while on the west side the man from Tarsus
startles St Peter from his fishing nets. The composition is
deliciously naïve, and is set in an invented landscape with Tuscan
angels flying banderols above the heads of the saints. The
presentation drawing would have delighted any PCC or DAC, and one
wonders whether Sorrell saw himself as Wilfrith, the outsider and
"Alan Sorrell: A Life
Reconstructed" is at Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn
Fields, London WC2, until 25 January. Phone 020 7405 2107.