When asked what kind of pictures he paints, Richard Sorrell describes himself as a painter of invented figurative pictures. When he gets a blank look, he says: ‘People doing things’ and this seems to be satisfactory. He works in oil and acrylic paint as well as in watercolour, which is just as well as he is the President of the Royal Watercolour Society.
Richard was born in Thundersley in Essex, the son of the painter and historical draughtsman Alan Sorrell, and of Elizabeth Sorrell, the watercolour painter. The family lived in a converted Peculiar People’s chapel, a wooden clapboard building with tall round topped windows that let in plenty of light for painting. Television and even radio were banished from the house and an atmosphere of creativity prevailed – drawing and painting, looking at plants and creatures in the woods nearby and searching for ancient flint implements in the fields.
From 1965–72 Richard studied at Walthamstow Art School, Kingston College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. He was a student of Peter Greenham, Roderic Barrett, Edward and Richard Bawden and Fred Heyworth.
His career started as a predominantly landscape, portrait and still life painter – by instinct a draughtsman, and interested in the appearance of things, particularly plants and animals – an objective painter. His subjective painting – the invented compositions – was a smaller part of his work at this time, but he has kept the two types of painting going throughout his career.
The relationship between objective and subjective painting is a complex one. Objective painting depends on looking at a subject and forming it into a composition. Important considerations are the positioning of objects, the description and delineation of them; the rendering of form and of recession and of the spaces between objects; the effect of light upon a scene and the
capturing of light effects, and finally the meaning that any such arrangement of objects might have. Perhaps in the English Impressionist approach to painting, which formed the basis of art school teaching at the time, the study of the effect of light was the most important aspect of all.
In subjective painting, one approaches from quite a different point of view. This is painting about things rather than light, about situations. It is a building towards a scene rather than the depiction of it. There is no clear connection between the two kinds of painting. For example, it is not really possible to take a drawing from life and work it up into an invented composition – or rather it is possible, but the resulting painting would be likely to be dull – less successful than if it had been painted directly from life and less inventive than if it had been evolved from paint marks.
For twenty years these two types of painting sat side by side. In 1990 an exhibition at Agnews swung positively in the direction of invented painting, and since then this subjective work has taken precedence.
At the same time a third approach, bird’s eye views (mostly of grand houses) sat between these others. These aerial views were almost always commissions, often from the National Trust. The pictures were based on a map or plan, which was put into perspective, and elevations of buildings were drawn on this perspective plan. Heights of trees and the rise and fall of the
land were estimated and added, and thus slowly a picture emerged, seen as if from an unreachable point in the sky. These pictures required a great deal of research – for instance, a view of Norwich in the time of Richard I was the result of much consultation with archaeologists about the (now often vanished) churches, the layout of the streets and so on. This picture now hangs in Norwich City Hall. A view of the channel tunnel workings at Shakespeare Cliff near Dover was actually commissioned by the V&A Museum during the time of the construction of the Tunnel and is now in the V&A collection.
Such paintings are necessarily complicated, and the difficulty is to make them work as compositions as well as being correct in terms of perspective and factual content. Richard’s aim in his work is to make pictures that are strong images that are at the same time subtle – images that have an immediate impact but linger in the mind. In order to make images strong, it is sometimes
necessary to step back to a more primitive approach – which because of its simplicity has more power.
Large shapes and strong colours – this may sound like a programme to produce bold abstract paintings. Though there is a strong abstract aspect to his work the pull of the natural, perceived world, and a love of drawing always seems to direct the pictures back from non-representation.
In order for there to be a dialogue between the artist and the viewer, there must be a ‘lead in’ to a picture. With a landscape this may be familiarity with the scene: in Richard’s paintings the viewer identifies with the people doing things, with their awkwardness or with the comic situation, and is lead by stealth to the painting’s more formal qualities.
Richard Sorrell was born in 1948, the son of Alan Sorrell, the historical draughtsman and painter and Elizabeth Sorrell the watercolorist.
Richard studied at the RA Schools (Post Graduate Course) 1968-72, having also attended Walthamstow Art School and Kingston College of Art.
Richard was elected to the Royal Watercolour Society in 1975, and was Vice-President of that society 2002–05, and elected President in 2006. He is also an Executive Committee member of the New English Art Club and a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, by whom he was awarded the De Laslo Medal in 2002. He was a Governor of the Mall Galleries 2000-06.
Richard Sorrell’s work is held in the collections of the V&A Museum, Museum of London, the National Trust, Norwich City Council, Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, Basildon Arts Trust and in private collections in Britain, Europe and US. In 2001 he presented one of his paintings on behalf of the RWS to HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to mark her Centenary.