Sorrell, Alan Ernest (1904–1974), artist and writer
by Mark Sorrell

Sorrell, Alan Ernest (1904–1974), artist and writer, was born on 11 February 1904 at Tooting Graveney, south London, the second child of Ernest Thomas Sorrell (1861–1910), watchmaker and jeweller, and his wife, Edith Jane Doody (1867–1951). The family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex when he was two years old. He was a sickly and nervous boy; his childhood was spent confined to a bath chair with a suspected heart condition. These years were further shadowed by the early deaths of his father, an amateur artist, and of his only sister, Doris.

As a young man Sorrell steadily pursued his determination to become an artist. He trained at the Southend Municipal School of Art and, after a brief spell as a commercial artist in London—an experience which gave him a perhaps exaggerated fear of ‘facility’ in his work—at the Royal College of Art (1924–8). Here he came under the influence of the principal, William Rothenstein, who greatly encouraged him and became a good friend. In 1928 Sorrell won the prix de Rome in mural painting and spent until 1931 at the British School at Rome. This was a crucially formative time: he mingled with classical scholars, engravers, painters, and architects, and the twin themes of his work—the depth of history and the fragility of the present—began to assert themselves.

Sorrell returned to England in 1931 and was invited by Rothenstein to join the teaching staff at the college as a drawing-master (1931–48). He became known affectionately to students in the life class as Old Angles because of his insistence on the importance of structure and form. His contemporaries on the teaching staff—Gilbert Spencer, Charles Mahoney, and others—were lifelong friends. About 1932 he married (Irene Agnes) Mary Oldershaw; however, the marriage ended in divorce in 1946.

At this stage Sorrell thought of himself as a mural painter. His first large commission was a decorative scheme (1932–6) for the central library in Southend-on-Sea—four tall panels with historical subjects, one of which was The Refitting of Admiral Blake's Fleet at Leigh, 1652. He evolved a characteristic working method, a period of intense questioning and study which preceded the development of the painting. The landscape transformed itself in front of his eyes:
The problem was to pierce the skin of building which had spread over the hillsides, plant them again with trees, mentally demolish that ugly gasometer and the railway that has cut through the fishing village, and then rebuild the wharves, people them with those oddly dressed Cromwellian figures, fill the estuary with white-sailed ships-of-the-line—and there would be the picture. (Sorrell, 10)
This unusual (for an artist) historical perspective is what informs his best-known work. Other decorative schemes, in a variety of settings, occupied him at intervals throughout his life, for example the chancel arch at St Peter's Church in Bexhill, Sussex; panels for the Festival of Britain (1951); and a wall-length mural for the entrance hall of Warwick Oken County secondary school.

However, when Sorrell ‘found himself’, it was not as an oil or tempera painter but, par excellence, as a draughtsman. He was never happier or more assured than when working directly with pen and ink, pencil, charcoal, and brush on a subject which challenged him. Journeys abroad to Iceland (1935), to Greece and Istanbul (1954), and, finest of all, to Egypt and Nubia to record the riverside temples and villages before their inundation by Lake Nasser (1962), produced a crop of drawings. He showed similar verve working at his ‘reconstruction’ drawings, whistling snatches of the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata as he leant over his board in his studio, with papers, books, paints, chalks, and brushes piled around him.

His first reconstruction drawing, in 1936, arose from a chance visit to the excavation by Kathleen Kenyon of the Roman ‘basilica’ at Leicester. It was published in the Illustrated London News (c.May 1936) and, among archaeologists, stimulated an immediate response. He soon found himself working with Mortimer Wheeler (the result of which was a dramatic drawing of the Roman assault on the eastern entrance of Maiden Castle, Dorset) and with Cyril Fox and V. E. Nash-Williams on a series of drawings of Roman and prehistoric sites for the National Museum of Wales (1937–40). So began a partnership with two generations of archaeologists, which only ended with his death in 1974. For nearly forty years he ‘reconstructed’ with his lively pen numerous sites in Britain and continental Europe, including Stonehenge and Avebury; Roman forts on Hadrian's Wall; Roman towns, villas, and temples; Dark Age brochs and viking settlements; medieval castles in England, Scotland, and Wales; and great monastic foundations like Tintern, Rievaulx, and Fountains. He was an artist working productively with scientists. In an age much vexed by the ‘two cultures’, he seemed effortlessly to be able to bridge the gap without compromising his own acute sensibilities. In these works (many of which were commissioned by the ancient monuments branch of the Ministry of Works—which then became English Heritage—as well as by the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office) he played a not inconsiderable part in the popularizing of historical sites and buildings in Britain which was such a feature of the twentieth century. But he was more than a popularizer. He expressed his own aspiration for the form in these words: ‘the reconstruction which is conceived as a work of art has that super-realism, the realism of the dream, which fixes for ever the image of the scene or incident or personage depicted’ (Sorrell, 25). His drawings were frequently reproduced in situ, giving the visitor to the site a striking image of how it might have looked.

Sorrell served in the RAF during the Second World War as a camouflage officer, and by-products of these years were drawings and paintings of aerodromes and barrack-room life. Many of these were purchased by the war artists' commission and eventually became part of the collections of the Tate and the Imperial War Museum in London. In 1947 he married (Mabel) Elizabeth Tanner (1916–1991) who, working under her married name, Elizabeth Sorrell, was a distinguished watercolourist. They bought and converted a redundant chapel on Daws Heath, Thundersley, Essex, formerly belonging to The Peculiar People, and made it their workplace and home. Of the three children of this marriage—Richard, Mark, and Julia—Richard and Julia followed their parents in becoming professional artists.

Sorrell was a neo-Romantic. Recruits marching down to the station, in a wartime painting, proceed under a haloed moon. His reconstruction drawings are invested with dramatic cloud formations, swirling rainstorms, and smoke. In his more imaginative compositions, not tied down to immediate reality, a brooding oppressive atmosphere often prevails. They are images of a violently broken civilization—earthquake-shattered cities, jungle-invaded monuments, propped façades. In spite of this pessimistic attitude, he was a man with a gusto for life, naturally sociable and gregarious, with a witty manner which was hindered but never stifled by a stammer.

He wrote with pleasure and apparent ease. His more personal writing—records of his life as a student in Rome and of his journeys to Greece and Nubia—are a revelation of his character as an artist and man. He compiled several books, illustrated with reconstruction drawings and published by Batsford, with titles such as Living History (1965), Roman London (1969), and British Castles (1973); and a very successful series of school books based on his drawings was published by Lutterworth: Roman Britain (1961), Saxon England (1964), Norman Britain (1966), Prehistoric Britain (1968), and Imperial Rome (1970). His Nubian drawings are reproduced in Nubia—a Drowning Land (1967) by Margaret Drower.

Sorrell was a member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. His work is represented in many public and private collections. Alan Sorrell died in Southend-on-Sea on 21 December 1974.



M. Sorrell, Reconstructing the past (1980) · D. W. Sykes, ed., Alan Sorrell: early Wales re-created (1980) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1975) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004)


priv. coll.


A. Sorrell, self-portrait, oils, 1972, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£23,281: probate, 19 June 1975, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Alan Ernest Sorrell (1904–1974): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/52629