IAN COLLINS

Two superb touring exhibitions can now be seen at the Norwich Castle Museum.

Ian Collins revels in the East Anglian stories behind the pictures

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IAN COLLINS

Go to the Norwich Castle over the next few months and you are in for a double treat - a royal and noble bonus.

A splendid sample of the late Queen Mother's watercolours and drawings unfolds in a colourful celebration of life, an often-surprising record of engaged enthusiasm for her times and of very personal taste.

Back in the 1980s, when a fairly junior reporter, I was invited to cover a reception at St James's Palace hosted by the Queen Mother on behalf of the Aldeburgh Festival.

A rather frail Sir Peter Pears was in attendance as a largely East Anglian creative company was entertained with music by some of the young performers that he and Benjamin Britten had nurtured.

But no one seemed more youthful than the hostess of the evening who, in one of those floaty dresses involving a small sea of chiffon, seemed literally to skip around the palace, delighting in everything and everyone. She couldn't have been a day over 85 at the time.

Sir Timothy Colman, the former lord lieutenant of Norfolk who married the Queen Mother's niece, recalled at the Castle show opening that she had literally sparkled in the company of artists. How very true from the evening I witnessed.

I saw her now and again over the years - once while squashed into a Holkham hedge as her limo negotiated a farm track on its way back from a 90th birthday party on the beach, and finally when, nearing 100, and on a freezing day in November, she met army veterans outside Westminster Abbey while aboard a buggy and amid a field of planted paper poppies.

But it was the exhilaration at that St James's Palace party I best recall, and that's the spirit guiding her taste in pictures. She savoured what she called “a quality of magic” - and so can we.

But the Queen Mother's pictures at the Norwich Castle now lead into a second exhibition which at first glance makes for a most unlikely pairing.

This is the memorial show to Prunella Clough, a very dear and hugely lamented friend of mine, and possibly the most private person I ever met.

Journalism is a brilliant profession because it is a passport into other people's lives at moments of greatest interest. But I knew Pru in spite of my trade.

In my experience some of the deepest friendships are gifts of inheritance and Ms Clough was handed on to me by Marie Singer, an American painter and child psychologist who had a house at Frostenden near Southwold.

Marie was the widow of the wild Scottish poet, Soho bohemian and Lowestoft marine biologist James Burns Singer, who could out-drink even his contemporaries George Barker and Dylan Thomas.

He wrote beautiful poetry (especially in the critically acclaimed 1957 volume Still and All) and a lyrical account of the North Sea herring industry Living Silver, and he attempted suicide several times before dying from a sudden heart attack at the age of 35.

Prunella, like me only a day-tripper to Bohemia, befriended Marie as she had Jimmy and we were part of the circle of friends caring for her in her lonely old age. When I moved to London I met Pru for supper at her Fulham house every couple of months or so, and we'd start with whiskies in the drinking room - a bare space save for a couple of sofas, a lot of books and a proto-type screen by the modernist designer Eileen Gray, Prunella's “lion aunt” and kindred spirit.

I met only three other people on those many sociable evenings and my friend remained a Russian doll. I'd got through about three layers, but many more remained closed to me.

She hated biography, but hid her views behind perfect politeness and kind friendship. I took her at her word in my 1990 book A Broad Canvas, that she had painted “a little in Lowestoft” for a few years from the late 1940s.

For that she gave me a picture, because she liked what I'd written, I thought. Ha! She liked it because she'd steered me off the point.

I've already told the story of how, after Pru's death on Boxing Day 1999, aged 80, weeks after winning the Jerwood Prize, and after just having time to give all the prize money away, I went to see her executor to choose the drawing she had left me. On the table I saw a photo of the teenage Prunella in my neighbour's Southwold garden, on top of a heap of similar studies dating back to babyhood. Some are reprinted here.

When I'd bought my little cottage in Southwold five years before she died she did confess to knowing the place “slightly” and inquired exactly where it was. Her face was deadpan on hearing, as I only later realised, that it was two doors from the house she'd visited from childhood and owned from 1945 to 1966.

Along with all the photographs, I was allowed to take away a volume of her 1940s diary in which she bicycled through the Blitz to the basement of Selfridge's, to produce, maps, graphs and charts for the American Office of War Information.

And then she fled whenever possible to her Southwold bolthole. “S'wold is my child's paradise & I will not admit strangers,” she wrote in the ink-and-paper-saving shorthand she always used.

Here she painted the beach and harbour defences in eerie pictures poised between Surrealism and abstraction, as well as strange flowers invading the shingle like those brilliant blooms reported in the fired mud of vaporised houses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She painted bleached bird skeletons and beached tree stumps and other marine images suggesting a world without a future. Her words were no less bleak.

But then again, as she said of her painter friend Keith Vaughan, whose diaries reveal endless misery. “People only have time to write their diaries when they're not absorbed by their work or revelling in their social lives - they rarely give you the full picture.”

Prunella's life was based on work - and on the optimism of reinventing the world daily in her studio.

And her art was a glorious journey from the semi-Cubist representation of Southwold, Kessingland, Pakefield and Lowestoft fishermen, through the rationed and recessed industrialism of the early 1950s - with workers lost in a sombre palette of brown, ochre, grey and black - towards a wider abstraction and deeper focus on details (literally the nuts and bolts of the scene).

She never repeated herself either in technique or subject, and the ways she worked are hard to unravel. For me the two most beautiful pictures in the Castle show are derived from an electrical circuit board and a pink and white striped plastic bag seen blowing in a Hammersmith gutter.

She was a painter's painter - the equivalent of art royalty - an elusive figure who was often to be praised by her peers for her austere talent, generosity and integrity.

Only when researching her obituary for this newspaper and the Guardian did I learn of enormous wealth. She'd lived so simply that one friend joked about our supper vegetables having fallen from market stalls to be gathered up by our bag-lady hostess.

Descended from Scottish and Irish aristocrats, she had quietly - and, where possible, anonymously - given away a fortune to art colleges and individual artists during her lifetime. She bequeathed huge sums to Amnesty International, and to charities for Aids and the elderly. One friend received her house and studio, another the bulk of her pictures and a third the Eileen Gray archive subsequently bought by the National Museum of Ireland.

Pru cared not a jot about possessions, but she did the world a power of good with the wealth she never wanted. Her biggest legacy is her pictures - with the Castle show, though so welcome, offering only a small sample and telling nothing like the whole story. She'd love it that way.

I subsequently exposed - and possibly betrayed - her, by telling her Suffolk story in what is for me the best chapter of my 2005 book Making Waves: Artists in Southwold.

But, beside my ongoing joy in her art and in her memory, she did me one last favour. After her crowded funeral at St James's Piccadilly very early in 2000 we all went off for a wake at her gallery.

With hundreds of people squashed into one room, I found myself cheek by jowl with John Craxton - who since working with Lucian Freud in the 1940s has spent much of his time in Crete. Now he is my great friend and, as he turns 85 this month, England's (and Greece's) greatest living painter.

t Prunella Clough and Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother are at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until January 6.

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