20th Century British Art

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974)

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974) attended the Royal College of Art in the mid-1920s during a period which saw the emergence of talents such as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Henry Moore and Barnett Freedman. Although Sorrell’s work has been less well documented his talent was comparable to that of artists more usually associated with the RCA’s formidable reputation during the interwar years.
What were Sorrell’s achievements and how should he be remembered by posterity? During his life Sorrell produced a vast cycle of murals (nearly 20 over a 30-year period). When exhibited for the first time in a generation at the British Murals show organized by Liss Fine Art at The Fine Art Society (London), William Packer described Sorrell’s recently rediscovered Festival of Britain mural as ‘utterly enchanting’ and ‘quite the star of the entire show’, (The Times 2.3.2013 p 91).
Another aspect of Sorrell’s oeuvre which deserves greater recognition are the paintings he produced during WW2. Like many artists of the period, such as Sir Thomas Monnington, Sorrell’s direct experience as an airman resulted in a new perspective – broad horizons and tilted aerial views which were to become the hallmark of his post-war reconstruction drawings. Never an Official War Artist he was able to choose his subjects with relative freedom which resulted in an engaging record of daily life in wartime Britain.
Sorrell’s work as a pre-war artist is relatively little known. Trained at Southend before starting to work as a commercial artist Sorrell subsequently took up a scholarship at the RCA (1924) – an association later strengthened by his period as a teacher there (1931-48). In between he spent two years at the British School at Rome on a Scholarship.
Almost no work survives from Sorrell’s period as an RCA student other than the preparatory drawings with which he competed for his 1928 Rome Scholarship. The RCA archives for this period are much depleted (probably having been destroyed in the war), as a result of which it is hard to gain a fuller picture of this formative period of his life. An equally small body of work has survived from his two years in Rome though his early self-portrait (November 1928) – a masterly fusion of nagging self-doubt and youthful self confidence – hints at the emerging power of his talent. Sorrell recorded his time at the British School at Rome in an unpublished typescript titled Barbarians in Rome in which he paints a vivid picture of life at the school during the years 1928-30.
Returning from Rome in 1930, Sorrell produced some very fine works: Artist in the Campagna (c. 1931), Appian Way (1932), Rocky Formation at Thingvellir (1934), The Long Journey (1936), A Land Fit for Heros (1936). Sorrell’s vision was born out of the Romantic British tradition exemplified by Blake, Palmer and their 20th-century disciples.
Sorrell is principally remembered today as an illustrator of articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News and books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, (more than 15 books over a period of 40 years, the last Reconstructing the Past appearing posthumously in 1981) and for reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage. Through these projects Sorrell played a unique role at a crucial moment in the development of archaeology as a discipline helping it develop from non-specialist to rigorous professional activity. The pioneering archaeologists he worked with read like a roll call of honour: Cyril and Ailen Fox, Dr Kathleen Kenyon, Professor Brian Emery, Mortimer Wheeler, Leonard Woolley, V. E. Nash-Williams, Ian Richmond, James Mellaart, Shepherd Frere and Philip Rahtz. For this and subsequent generations of archaeologists Sorrell’s work holds a special fascination. Out of context some of these drawings can appear dated, but the majority are infused with the qualities of Sorrell’s most evocative work – composed from a dynamic panoramic viewpoint full of imaginative details. This area of specialization, where Sorrell was successful in avoiding the predictable or formulaic, was not a cul de sac into which he withdrew from the artistic mainstream. Sorrell was acutely aware of contemporary issues and the same rigorous approach also inspired his remarkable series of drawings recording the construction of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station (from October 1957 to 1965). A photograph of Sorrell recording the Nuclear Reactor No 4 makes a poignant pair to the photograph of the same period which shows him sketching at Stonehenge.
Sorrell continued to develop his vision consistently over a highly productive half century. His journey was not always easy. Struggling at times financially he also suffered rejection and disappointment – the War Artists Committee turned down his application to become an Official War Artist; he was dismissed from his teaching post at the RCA by Robin Darwin (1948) and failed in his subsequent application to become head of Winchester Art School. And as late as 1964, when he was put forward for election to the RA by John Ward, his candidature was rejected. He was a man of principle: when serving in the RAF he staged a ‘one man mutiny’, refusing to work on terrain models of cities he considered to be of ‘irreplaceable artistic importance’. He was an active environmentalist campaigning in Essex in the mid-1950s to protect local fields, woodlands and hedgerows from urban development.
Sorrell made numerous journeys to distant lands, painting in Iceland (1934), Greece and Turkey (1954), Egypt and the Sudan (1962) where he travelled with a specially made canvas bag designed to stop his materials melting in the sun. A latter-day Holman Hunt, and with some of Holman Hunt’s heroism (!), he faithfully recorded scenes in situ including a remarkable series of over sixty drawings of the villages around Nubia threatened by the building of the High Dam at Aswan (1962). In other pictures his journeys were imagined, dramatic fantasies of falling towers, or trains rushing over viaducts.
As an epitaph for ‘England’s Early Sculptors’ John Piper used a thirteenth century chronicle by Peter Langtoft: ‘the wander wit of Wiltshire’ went to Rome to study the antiquities, but when the antiquaries learnt that he had never seen Stonehenge they sent him back to find inspiration in his own country. This story has a certain resonance with Sorrell’s own artistic journey and ultimately his success in forging a vision which responded to both legacies.

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Artist Alan Sorrell: Hazor, Ancient Town in Palestine

Alan Sorrell
Hazor, Ancient Town in Palestine
£2000
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Fortress of Bahen, Sudan, New Kingdom

Alan Sorrell
The Fortress of Bahen
£2000
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mural II for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Mural II for the canteen of John D.... 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mural III for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Mural III for the canteen of John D.... 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mural IV for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Mural IV for the canteen of John D.... 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study of a Greek Temple, possibly Thebes

Alan Sorrell
Study of a Greek Temple
£350
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of an RAF Officer

Alan Sorrell
Portrait of an RAF Officer
£325
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for

Alan Sorrell
Study for
£350
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of Reginald Brill, late 1920s

Alan Sorrell
Portrait of Reginald Brill, late 1920's
£400
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for mural for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Study for mural for the canteen of...
£320
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait, head and shoulders

Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait, head and shoulders
£375
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait (Illustration for The Broken Gates), circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait (Illustration for The...
£800
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Court of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in Procession circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
Study for 'Court of the Worshipful...
£740
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of Evelyn Gibbs, circa 1929

Alan Sorrell
Portrait of Evelyn Gibbs, circa 1929
£750
Artist Alan Sorrell: Early self portrait, circa 1925

Alan Sorrell
Early self portrait, circa 1925
£960
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Courtyard of The Britisch School, Rome, Aug 1937

Alan Sorrell
The Courtyard of The Britisch School
£800
Artist Alan Sorrell: Studyof Mrs Turner, for the mural at Turners Hardware shop in Hadleigh High Street, circa 1956

Alan Sorrell
Studyof Mrs Turner
£475
Artist Alan Sorrell: Istanbul: The Lesser Golden Gate, 1955

Alan Sorrell
Istanbul: The Lesser Golden Gate, 1955
£990
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for a reconstruction of the Triangular temple at Verulamium (Roman St Albans)

Alan Sorrell
Study for a reconstruction of the...
£960
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for A Burial Ceremony at Tinkinswood, Glamorgan, circa 1939

Alan Sorrell
Study for 'A Burial Ceremony at...
£475
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self portrait

Alan Sorrell
Self portrait
£1100
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait in Graduation Gown

Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait in Graduation Gown
£1850
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of the architect Thornton White, circa 1926

Alan Sorrell
Portrait of the architect Thornton...
£600
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Court of the Worshipful Company of Butchers in Procession circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
Study for 'Court of the Worshipful...
£740
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mural I for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Mural I for the canteen of John D.... 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Farm in Iceland, circa 1936

Alan Sorrell
Farm in Iceland, circa 1936
£675
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Murals for the canteen of John D. Francis Ltd, Fazakerley, Liverpool, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Study for Murals for the canteen of...
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: WW2, Interior of an RAF dormitory

Alan Sorrell
WW2, Interior of an RAF dormitory
£940
Artist Alan Sorrell: Buildings on the edge of an airfield, circa 1940

Alan Sorrell
Buildings on the edge of an airfield
£395
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for the North arch of St Peter’s Church, Bexhill-on-Sea, circa 1951

Alan Sorrell
Study for the North arch of St...
£300
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Lake of Albano and Monte Cavo, 1928

Alan Sorrell
The Lake of Albano and Monte Cavo, 1928
£1900
Artist Alan Sorrell: Hadleigh Castle from the West, c. 1936

Alan Sorrell
Hadleigh Castle from the West, c. 1936
£1100
Artist Alan Sorrell: Thors Mead, 1947

Alan Sorrell
Thors Mead, 1947
£1050
Artist Alan Sorrell: Bradfield Lodge with Nissen hut accommodation, near RAF Bradwell Bay, circa 1942

Alan Sorrell
Bradfield Lodge with Nissen hut...
£525
Artist Alan Sorrell: Crosby Hall on the Chelsea Embankment, May 3. 46

Alan Sorrell
Crosby Hall on the Chelsea Embankment
£600
Artist Alan Sorrell: Composition with airfield base

Alan Sorrell
Composition with airfield base
£675
Artist Alan Sorrell: Reconstruction study

Alan Sorrell
Reconstruction study
£800
Artist Alan Sorrell: Studies of Mr Turner, for the mural at Turners Hardware shop in Hadleigh High Street, circa 1956

Alan Sorrell
Studies of Mr Turner
£690
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for a Book jacket design, c. 1920

Alan Sorrell
Study for a Book jacket design, c. 1920
£1200
Artist Alan Sorrell: Tea time, 1926

Alan Sorrell
Tea time, 1926
£1320
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sheet of studies of an illustminated manuscript

Alan Sorrell
Sheet of studies of an illustminated...
£630
Artist Alan Sorrell: Book jacket design,c. 1920,

Alan Sorrell
Book jacket design,c. 1920,
£695
Artist Alan Sorrell: Book jacket design, early 1920s

Alan Sorrell
Book jacket design, early 1920s
£1950
Artist Alan Sorrell: Vignette with model houses

Alan Sorrell
Vignette with model houses
£300
Artist Alan Sorrell: Part 3, Illustration for The Broken Gates, circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
Part 3
£650
Artist Alan Sorrell: part 2, Illustration for The Broken Gates, circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
part 2
£450
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait , circa 1927

Alan Sorrell
Portrait , circa 1927
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Dejeuner sur lherbe

Alan Sorrell
Dejeuner sur l'herbe
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: Portrait of the architect Thornton White, circa 1929

Alan Sorrell
Portrait of the architect Thornton...
£450
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for St Richard starts out on a Journey.

Alan Sorrell
Study for 'St Richard starts out on...
£860
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Thingvellir, Iceland, 1936

Alan Sorrell
Study for Thingvellir, Iceland, 1936
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: Ceremony

Alan Sorrell
Ceremony
£300
Artist Alan Sorrell: May Morning, Putney Embankment, July 6th, 1939

Alan Sorrell
May Morning
£3350
Artist Alan Sorrell: RAF encampment

Alan Sorrell
RAF encampment
£1350
Artist Alan Sorrell: Arriving at the airfield, circa 1940

Alan Sorrell
Arriving at the airfield, circa 1940
£1100
Artist Alan Sorrell: The artists wife picking apples, study for The Four Seasons, mural at Myton, Warwick, 1958

Alan Sorrell
The artists wife picking apples
£430
Artist Alan Sorrell: Landscape with trees and viaduct, circa 1930

Alan Sorrell
Landscape with trees and viaduct
£525
Artist Alan Sorrell: June 12 1933, Kensington Gardens

Alan Sorrell
June 12 1933, Kensington Gardens
£430
Artist Alan Sorrell: View on the Roman Forum from Capitoline Hill, 1937

Alan Sorrell
View on the Roman Forum from...
£720
Artist Alan Sorrell: Cyprus Tree, study for The Appian Way, circa 1932

Alan Sorrell
Cyprus Tree
£660
Artist Alan Sorrell: Juscilium., 1929

Alan Sorrell
Juscilium., 1929
£540
Artist Alan Sorrell: Beach Scene, probably Eype Beach in Dorset, circa 1950

Alan Sorrell
Beach Scene
£480
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sheet of studies - tree trunk (recto);kneeling man (verso)

Alan Sorrell
Sheet of studies - tree trunk...
£495
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, 1928

Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After Wisdom
£785
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study of a naked man, leaning forward

Alan Sorrell
Study of a naked man, leaning forward
£400
Artist Alan Sorrell: South Harting, August 1929

Alan Sorrell
South Harting, August 1929
£975
Artist Alan Sorrell: Figures planting a tree

Alan Sorrell
Figures planting a tree
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Traveller

Alan Sorrell
Study for The Traveller
£460
Artist Alan Sorrell: Landscape, possibly Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland

Alan Sorrell
Landscape
£325
Artist Alan Sorrell: Mountain Landscape (recto), A modern church building at Hadleigh (verso)

Alan Sorrell
Mountain Landscape (recto)
£550
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for The Long Journey, 1936

Alan Sorrell
Study for The Long Journey, 1936
£2500
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Evening Signal, 1940

Alan Sorrell
The Evening Signal, 1940For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Marching Gun Range and Rifle Range, RAF Station

Alan Sorrell
Study for Marching Gun Range and...For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for Watch Office, RAF Station, circa 1944

Alan Sorrell
Study for Watch OfficeFor sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, c 1928

Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After WisdomFor sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sketch for An Aerial View of a Wartime Airfield, circa 1944

Alan Sorrell
Sketch for An Aerial View of a...For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for An Aerial View of a Wartime Airfield

Alan Sorrell
Study for An Aerial View of a...For sale 
Artist Alan Sorrell: The Long Journey, 1936

Alan Sorrell
The Long Journey, 1936 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Sketch for examination competition, People Seeking After Wisdom, March 1, 1928

Alan Sorrell
Sketch for examination competition 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Self Portrait, nov 1928

Alan Sorrell
Self Portrait, nov 1928 
Artist Alan Sorrell: Study for People Seeking After Wisdom, 1928

Alan Sorrell
Study for People Seeking After Wisdom