Tributes have been paid to parks campaigner Alan Barber, who died of cancer last month.

Alan Sorrell
Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed

As the exhibition’s curator, Jerzy Kiercuc-Beilinski, pointed out, both spent time in Italy, both were interested in fragments and in history. So that settles the question of why Sorrell should be at the Soane. More to the point, however, is whether the exhibition is worthwhile. And the answer is definitely yes. Kiercuc-Bellinski believes that Sorrell’s fame as a draughtsman, and particularly his gift for historical reconstruction, has obscured his wider abilities.

The collection of work is fascinating. For the landscape profession in particular, it is interesting to see how strong a sense of place Sorrell had. In Italy, he places himself as a prototypical Englishman, drawing ruins in the Campagna, surrounded by gnarled trees and with hills in the background. His Appian way seems haunted, with wind-swept pine trees beneath a starry sky. In England, a dramatic story, ‘The Long Journey’ is played out against a bucolic background including a very prosaic brick house in a manner almost reminiscent of Stanley Spencer, while a postman, cycling past fields, who should be a far more quotidian figure, seems positively sinister in his black cape and hood, struggling against the wind on a rutted track.

A study for a painting called ‘Through the Valley’ commissioned by the Post Office gives an interesting view of changing attitudes. The landscape is invented, but reminiscent of the Pennines, with the valley sides lined with small houses and, presumably drawing water from the river that runs through the centre of the drawing, factories belching smoke. Since this was a commissioned work, the vision must have been intended to be progressive rather than apocalyptic, but now it would outrage conservationists and Nimbys.

This was Sorrell looking, if not forward, at least at the present day. When he looked back, as in his reconstruction of Roman Britain, he was both convincing and uncannily prescient. So for instance when he was commissioned to draw Roman London, he surrounded it entirely with walls, only to be told to scrub out the wall along the river since the city would have been open to the Thames. Several years later, archaeologists discovered that Sorrell’s vision was in fact correct.

The exhibition includes self portraits and fragments of Sorrell’s murals for the Festival of Britain. It is small enough to be easily digestible and, set in one of the country’s most delightful buildings, is well worth visiting.

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