The secret of Alan Sorrell

PUBLISHED: 08:28 04 February 2015 | UPDATED: 08:28 04 February 2015




The Beecroft Gallery in Westcliff on Sea will be hosting an exhibition befitting the memory of Essex artist

The Beecroft Gallery will be hosting an exhibition befitting the memory of Essex artist Alan Sorrell this spring. Janice Walker finds out more

It is surprising how many people have not heard of Essex artist Alan Sorrell, particularly when you consider how many beautiful creations he was responsible for. Although Alan was born in Tooting, his family moved to Southend in 1906, when Alan was two years old, and he lived in Essex until his death in 1974. His father was a master jeweller and watchmaker by trade, but a keen amateur painter in his spare time. Concerns for Alan’s health as a child affected his education and the loss of his father when he was six may have contributed to the young Alan’s shyness, but this did not prevent the young man from realising his dreams.

Alan shared his father’s passion and talent for both drawing and painting and was determined to fulfil his ambition to make it his profession. 
He studied at the Southend Municipal School of Art for four years before spending a year as a commercial designer. Scholarships followed, to the Royal College of Art and then to the British School in Rome, where he began to refine his predilection for historical and archaeological works, inspiring some of his future paintings including Artist in the Campagna and Appian Way.

On his return to Southend in 1931, Alan was offered a post as an instructor of drawing at the Royal College of Art and while carrying out that role he approached the town’s mayor and secured a commission to paint four large wall panels of the Municipal Library. The paintings were to be of historical events in the area and the first was Refitting of Admiral Blake’s Fleet at Leigh in 1652.

Alan demonstrated his commitment to accuracy by researching the subject diligently, seeking professional advice as to how the landscape would have appeared at the time, filling his sketchbook with images of houses and landmarks befitting the era and hiring a skippered fishing boat to take him out on the estuary to observe the tones of the sea, shore and sky.

Alan’s attention to historical detail in his painting was not unique to his Southend project. In conjunction with his extensive worldwide travel including Iceland, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the Sudan, this exactitude ensured the artist’s success in illustrating articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News, more than 15 books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, and reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage.

Sorrell married his watercolour artist wife, Elizabeth, in 1947. Their three children, Richard, Mark and Julia, were often asked to model for his paintings, as was Elizabeth, and they can often be recognised as the primary subjects in them. The family lived in a small converted Peculiar People’s Chapel on Daws Heath, Thundersley.

It is of no surprise that the creative genes passed on to the children and both Richard and Julia are successful artists, while Mark is a writer. They are determined to celebrate their father’s life and work and have ensured his works remain accessible to the public by supporting exhibitions including the one at Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend which, in association with Liss Fine Art, brings together works from Southend’s collections and loans from private owners and features murals, sketches and local scenes from throughout Alan’s career.

When considering how much Alan contributed to the world of art and history, not to mention his active campaigning to protect rural England 
by preserving ancient trees and woodlands in the local area, it is fitting that we should celebrate his life and works.

The Beecroft Art Gallery is now open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm at its new home in the old Central Library building on Victoria Avenue, next to Central Museum. Visit The Exhibition at the Beecroft Gallery runs until April 4, 2015. For more information about Alan, visit or

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