I was new to the name Alan Sorrell when I decided to visit Sir John Soane's Museum and, indeed, one of the first things curator Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski acknowledges is that he is a relatively unknown artist. He would, however, have been familiar to a mid-20th century audience as the artist behind visual reconstructions of archaeological sites that were being so enthusiastically unearthed during this period. 

Jerzy suggests there are several synergies between Sorrell and the museum's founder; Sir John Soane also studied art in Rome, which had an undoubted influence on his work as an architect, and both men were great draughtsmen with a fascination for ruins, fragments and the possibility of recreating their completeness. However, Sir John Soane's Museum has created this exhibition not only to celebrate these similarities but also to extend knowledge and understanding of Sorrell beyond this range. 

The exhibition is housed in two rooms at the museum in Holborn, a great space for this purpose. The selection of artworks on display gives an excellent snapshot of Sorrell's work and reveals him as an artist well beyond his work with reconstructions. In the first room, one is immediately drawn to Self-Portrait (1928), which Sorrell executed only a month into his scholarship at the British School in Rome. This is fabulous: working in pencil, ink and white highlighting, it is resonant of Renaissance draughtsmanship, and the highly worked presentation drawings often made as gifts for potential patrons.

However, it had clearly been made in Sorrell's contemporary era; there is no lush Italianate curvaceousness in this austere work. His figure is spare with jutting cheekbones, sitting in his studio surrounded by angular, bare canvasses. Paul Liss, historical consultant on Sorrell for the exhibition, suggests that the hat depicted in the image has often been understood as a tin hat, which in this inter-war period gives off echoes of the still-fresh memories of the First World War.

Juxtaposed against this spare, intense image is one of a series of panels for a mural the artist created for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Sorrell was commissioned to provide a mural for the Nelson Bar of the HMS Campania which was to tour the coast of Britain as part of the Festival. The contrast is very interesting; against Sorrell's deeply introspective self-portrait the panel provides almost comic relief. Here, in keeping with the commission request to create panels "using a fairground technique", Sorrell delivered exactly that: a sense of the jolliness of the seaside leaps from the panel, and the others that can be seen later in the exhibition, which is resplendent with jolly jack tars, seaside motifs of shells, boats, rope swags and mermaids.

This first room also contains studies for People Seeking After Wisdom, which won him the Rome Scholarship in 1928. The project was to create a wall decoration for the Lunette in the Library of the British School in Rome. I found the study for the blindfolded group particularly arresting: the labelling makes the connection to war paintings such as John Singer Sargent's Gassed (1919), as it may be seen to reflect on the human casualties of the First World War, although for me it was much more significant as an allusion to the enlightening powers of knowledge. It was a pity that room exists only as a black-and-white photograph, as it would have been interesting to view the results of the separate studies in a final image.

In the next room, we see further sides to Sorrell as The Postman (1931) takes us back to a more complex artist. In ink, gouache and pastel, this is brilliant draughtsmanship again, along with Procession: Rome (also 1931). I loved the vibrancy, passion and movement Sorrell imbued into these artworks. The introspectiveness of Self-Portrait exists here in the back views of the figures, as is the distant point which was to become the motif of his famous archaeological reconstruction work.

In contemporary museum thought, the notion of reconstructing sites from archaeological evidence undoubtedly brings up ideas that a degree of fantasy would be at play. However, within the period Sorrell in which created his reconstructions, they were well received, making – as the catalogue puts it – dry bones live. Some are on display here, one of the most famous being of Roman London, which Sorrell rightly predicted as being surrounded by walls and gates – as was later found to be the case.

This is an interesting exhibition with a great deal packed into a small space. The selection of works is excellent – it perfectly brings out the depth and range of Sorrell's career to recover him as much more than a reconstructionist, and raises the inevitable question of whether he has been previously overlooked within the English Neo-Romantic movement.

Alan Sorrell, at Sir John Soane's MuseumRita Fennell reviews Alan Sorrell: A Life Reconstructed at Sir John Soane's Museum, London.3