Legacy Reviews

Alan Sorrell: Artist-archaeologist

Alan Sorrell is revered as one of the greatest archaeological reconstruction illustrators but his oeuvre reveals a more creative artist.


Alan Sorrell

Born in Tooting Bec in 1904 to a relatively prosperous family, his early life was marked with love and tragedy. The family moved to Southend and Alan was part of a close knit family. His Uncle William was a Royal photographer and claimed that the Sorrell family descended from Norman Sorrell, a conqueror who came over with William I. His family was a creative one. His father (who had wanted to be a painter as a young man) had taken Alan on painting trips with him. Sadly his father died when Alan was six years old.

He was educated first at Southend Municipal School of Art and then at Royal College of Art. The RCA was enjoying something of a golden period under the tutorship of William Rothenstein. Alan who started in 1924 was a contemporary of the 1922 intake which included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus and Enid Marx amongst others. Alan’s intake was not as prestigious as that one but Rothenstein believed in him throughout his career. Alan also remained good friends with Bawden.

In 1928 Alan was awarded the prestigious and coveted scholarship in Mural Painting at the British School in Rome. Here he fell in love with Roman architecture and classical art. Traces of what he learnt in Rome can be seen in all of his art. The atmosphere at Rome has been called a hot house: with a small group of brilliant scholars and artists kept in close quarters. Alan made lifelong friends with the classicists Richard Carrington and Colin Hardie. He also met the archaeologist Aileen Henderson who along with her futuree husband Sir Cyril Fox later supported Alan’s work. He found his artistic colleagues a little frustrating. He also saw first-hand, something of the true ugly face of fascism.

His first major artistic undertaking was a mural in Southend Library. Although he wanted to take a contemporary subject for his theme, he was asked to present images from the history of the area.  The Refitting of Blake’s Fleet at Leigh, during the First Dutch War is the highlight of this mural. To paint this accurately, Alan researched the period closely. He learnt all he could about the clothes, architecture and ships’ rigging from this period. He also did several studies of the sea. The finished piece is a masterpiece in its own right. It has a precision and luminosity resembling Bruegel. Other notable murals include a four seasons at Myton School, Warwick, a Maritime themed bar mural for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and St Peter’s Church, Bexhill-on-Sea.

Although in his early career Sorrell longed to portray contemporary scenes he also felt that historical painting was the highest form of fine art. He followed the French Academicians in this.

During the war he joined the RAF. The war was a bitter time and Sorrell suffered a heavy physical toll from deprivation. He was never an official fulltime artist but took commissions from the War Artists Advisory Committee headed by Sir Kenneth Clark. He had ten pieces in the final WAAC exhibition after the war. Sorrell staged a one-man protest against the war by refusing to create recognition models for bombers of places he felt had artistic importance. A more fruitful commission was to paint aerial landscapes of airfields. A new perspective was opened up to artists and to archaeologists. Flight gave a new understanding of the British landscape which Sorrell continued to explore after his demob. 


Alan Sorrell and Archaeology

After the war he took to archeological reconstruction. His first such image had been created in 1937 during the excavation of Leicester’s Roman Forum in 1937. Alan had seen the dig by chance and decided to take sketches. He showed these to Sir Bruce Ingrams of the Illustrated London News who asked him to draw a reconstruction of what the area would have looked like in Roman times.

Britain enjoyed an archaeological boom after the war. This was in large part directly the effect of a post-war booming build. During the war many cities in Britain had experienced large scale bombing. Whole urban areas had been flattened by bombs or buildings irreparably damaged. There was also a new spirit in Town Planning Departments and politicians were aware of the need to actually create a Home for Heroes after this war.

This factor was combined with the increasing professionalisation of archaeology. The Institute of Archaeology was opened in 1937. This was followed by similar departments in universities across Britain during this period.

The big news story of the period was the discovery of the London Mithraeum in 1954 by the Museum of London. Sorrell painted the reconstruction images for the Illustrated London News. His image of the interior shows a man wearing a bird costume holding a torch in an austerely grand basilica. The other men in the period who a range of emotions ranging from a bored looking man on the left to a pious kneeling man on the right. Religion on these isles has always been a bit of a duty, it seems.

Sorrell worked closely with archaeologists to create accurate reconstructions. His method was to first sketch the rough outlines of his recreation and then overlay this with tracing paper. He would send both to the archaeologist he was working with. This could go back and forth for several weeks until Sorrell was happy.

Sorrell develop a professional knowledge of archaeology through this process and his wider reading. He was an acute reader of landscape and intuitively understood how sites could be used. He argued that the Star Carr Mesolithic site in north Yorkshire contained houses only for archaeologists to say the site would have housed a campsite. He has since been proved right.

Although precise, his art was informed by wider artistic movements. In the 1950s he got to know the poet and artist David Jones. Jones visionary reimagining of earlier British history, myth and Catholicism was part inspired by a fervid dilettantism. Alan and him had a mutual respect for each others’ work. They would discuss Roman archaeology with their mutual friend Maurice Percival.

Most of his pieces were commissioned by museums who owned the copyright for his images. Postcards and prints bearing his reconstructions are big money spinners for smaller museums and they have held onto the copyright tightly.

As well as several pieces for museums, Alan Sorrell produced a range of books. Several cover Roman history but he also created reconstructions of castles, Medieval and Mesolithic Britain. Several of these books printed his art in black and white. He was aware of how to create powerful images in black and white due to his experience of commercial art. Yet the colour adds a certain mood to pieces.

Alan Sorrell’s paintings are full of movement and noise, they are dark and foreboding. For example in Hadrian’s Wall: Housesteads Fort Sorrell brings out foreboding weather, dark clouds and rainstorms but like many of his paintings it is shown from above. Rather than a simplistic 3D map however, his art is informed by his experience in the WAF. The land is marked by shadows from the cloud, almost devoid of people. The surrounding crests are obscured by light and dark revealing few details or colour. In works like this, his paintings resemble some of John Piper’s war works.

His ancient cities are not marbled utopias. They are dirty, cramped and exciting placed. A typical street scene in Roman London shows a crowded street with people and carts milling around. The dust from the road is palpable even in the black and white reproduction.


Alan Sorrell a reappraisal

Sorrell was a great artist who transcended the genre of archaeological reconstruction illustration even as he transcended it.



By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics