Carr takes the biscuit; The early work of Prunella Clough may surprise us now, but the real discovery is her friend David Carr

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The Independent Culture

A TOUCHING exhibition unites the diverse talents of Prunella Clough and David Carr, both represented by paintings and drawings from 1945-64. Clough is well-known and has an especially large following among her fellow painters. Carr has no reputation at all. Even before his death in 1968 he was an obscure artist, for he was modest in his ambitions and diffident about showing his work. You won't find his name in histories of modern British art, though he has been included in one or two surveys of the Neo-Romanticism of the 1940s. His manner was unlike Clough's, so one might ask why Austin/Desmond are showing them together. There's a simple answer. They were friends.

Artistic friendships are far more significant than friendships between writers. Artists support and inspire each other in ways that literary folk on the whole do not. Often enough they have the feeling of a shared adventure, and this must have been especially so in the days when modern art was widely regarded as nonsensical. Early in life Carr suffered from this attitude, more acutely because he was a bourgeois. The family money came from Peek Frean biscuits. Carr started in the firm but couldn't stand it and went to study at Oxford. He didn't like university either and decided to become an artist. Such an ambition annoyed his father, but Carr none the less got himself into his local art school, the East Anglian School of Art in Dedham, where one of his fellow students was Lucian Freud.

This was in the years immediately before the war. When peace came Carr found himself as a painter and as an independent adult. All the same, In the Bath of 1945 is a curiously immature picture, perhaps by design. It's without doubt a self-portrait, seen as though the grown man were imagining himself as an adolescent. And thus it belongs to its period, for the fantasies of renewed adolescence were common in both artistic and literary Neo-Romanticism. Dylan Thomas's 1940s poetry and books by the artist-writer Denton Welch are of this sort. I imagine that people wanted to skip back over the war years during which their youthful energies had been wasted. But what was the appropriate pictorial style for this emotion? As In the Bath shows, Carr opted for a stiff, semi-naive realism. Here he resembles John Craxton and more especially the Lucian Freud of the later 1940s.

For Carr had caught the mood of the age. He became more acute about contemporary art when he began to buy paintings by, among others, Robert Colquohoun, Robert McBride and Keith Vaughan. One of the artists he purchased was Prunella Clough, whom Carr met in 1948. She was then 30 years old and forming her first mature style. To judge from the bits of correspondence printed in the exhibition catalogue, Clough was a highly intelligent observer of the current art scene. Unlike many artists, she was (and remains) a letter writer. In his Norfolk country house Carr would receive her missives from the front line of the avant-garde. Thus began a friendship that was strengthened by shared visits to galleries when Carr was in London. Clough also went to paint in Norfolk, and this accounts for her studies of post- war conditions in Lowestoft and thereabouts.

While Carr made paintings with titles like Biscuit-factory Workers Clough depicted lorry drivers, milkmen and the smelly detritus of the fishing industry. By generation and social contact Carr and Clough belonged to Neo-Romanticism, though they had a tougher outlook and wished to have less truck with sentiment. The Austin/Desmond exhibition is essential viewing if you want to understand Prunella Clough's early years. She has recently been prolific, witty and inventive as never before. So the impression of labour and indecision in her art of the late Forties seems out of character. I guess that Clough worked hard to lose the influence of such officially important painters as Graham Sutherland. And perhaps David Carr, eager and comparatively untaught, helped her to be free from preconceptions.

She was of course the superior artist. While Carr came upon discoveries - as collectors do - Clough was looking for things that did not exist before she put brush to canvas. In the last decade or two she has resembled Klee, who could make poignant art out of almost anything. In the mid- 1950s, she managed to be independent while finding a route to abstraction. It was at this point that she left Carr behind, at least in terms of achievement. Two remarkable paintings show Clough's experimental capacity. As so often in her later career, one picture looks older than another though the "older" precedes the "younger" by some years. Brown Wall seems to be young, though it was painted in 1964. The amazing Landscape Through Glass is of 1959. Coincidentally, it resembles paintings by the American Jules Olitski at just that date. Brown Wall shows an interest in the sprawling compositions of Roger Hilton; and also in the new Spanish "matter painting" that Carr had begun to collect around 1953.

Carr was not at ease with abstract painting when at his own easel. Man and Machine of 1956 is resolute but unaesthetic. It seems that machinery has taken command. Apart from their relative talents and Clough's more questioning imagination, the difference between the friends was that Carr was a dry painter and Clough was a wet painter. You can do more if you paint wet: even include machinery in a lyrical picture, as Clough has often shown. How good it is that she is still painting so well. I'm grateful to this show for introducing David Carr, but he does now seem far away. In one of her letters to him Clough quotes the critic Lawrence Alloway, who had described a painting as "a spectator failure". The cool Sixties had begun and there was no longer any place for Carr and his genuine but provincial mingling of amateur and professional attitudes.

! Austin/Desmond, WC1 (0171 242 4443), to 14 Aug.