Projects Room, RSA Lower Galleries
A celebratory exhibition looking at the long and illustrious career of our oldest current member.
Born in Longthorpe near Peterborough on the last day of 1912, Derek was educated at Ampleforth College and attended Slade School of Art from 1931 - 1935. At that time, the Slade's curriculum emphasised drawing as a tool for visual research, seeing it as an authentic art form in its own right, not merely a preparation for subsequent painting. Slade students, under the influence of such luminaries as Henry Tonks and Augustus John, were encouraged to admire contemporary European painting, and look to the New English Art Club rather than the Royal Academy to exhibit.
On leaving art college, and with no scholarship to support him, Derek's earned a living by paintings portraits. Indeed, it was a portrait commission that took him for the first time to the west coast of Ireland, where he worked hard to produce a large body of work - a personal artistic epiphany - among the Gaelic speaking rural folk in Rossaveel, Connemara. He would return a year or two later to develop the themes he had begun there.
Meanwhile, WW2 was declared, and the very day after, he joined up for officer training in the Durham Light Infantry. He served in Tunisia, and, in 1943, was wounded in the spine. Back in London for a year's convalescence, Derek spent at least half his time painting. Not for him the dreary greys of wartime England, but, with a sparkling palette of vibrant colours, he flooded his canvases with bright imagery, winning admiration from Stanley Spencer for work he showed at the New English Art Club, and securing portrait commissions from such luminaries as the Iranian Military Attaché. Married by now to his first wife Ann, he lived the precarious life of wartime Londoners - the unimaginable daily brutality of the bombing and AK-AK fire, contrasting poignantly with concerts given by Dame Myra Hess in the National Galleries.
Immediately the war was over, Derek returned to Connemara and to his fascination with the lives and characters in that wild landscape. Working at a furious rate, he amassed a substantial quantity of work. On returning to London with these canvases, however, he discovered that artistic tastes had changed radically. Bond Street Galleries and their patrons were less interested in images of Irish peasants, than in the new vogue for Surrealism and Abstraction. A true appreciation of this superb body of work had to wait until 2004 when it was exhibited in Dublin to much acclaim and the sale of all but a few of the paintings and drawings.
By 1947, the Clarke family had expanded to include 4 young sons, and fortuitously at this time, Derek was invited by Robert Lyon, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art, keen to introduce new ideas in art teaching, to join the staff of its Drawing and Painting School. The young tutor's colleagues included Robin Philipson (newly returned from a travelling scholarship) Alan Carr, Leonard Rosoman, a fellow Englishman who taught mural painting, Johnny Maxwell, and William Gillies, the Head of School.
Derek recalls these early days of his teaching career with great affection. Half the students were recently demobbed from the Armed Forces, and half fresh from school. In the heady atmosphere of post war Britain, there was an air of liberty and a strong creative buzz about the college. His attitude to drawing as a tool for information-gathering and exploring the visual world was much admired, and he was invited by Gillies to introduce the teaching of human and comparative anatomy. He retired in 1978 after 30 years teaching drawing and painting.
Of his long career in painting, Derek reflects that he has never followed passing trends and fashions in art. " Never in 72 years have I made two paintings the same….Each work springs from..a uniquely imagined inspiration".
Derek describes his work as "explicitly three dimensional" by which he means he constructs the illusion of space with pictorial accuracy…How tall is the object? How far from the viewer? How high that distant hill? How deep the room's interior?. Paint is applied with equally scrupulous attention. Prior to applying paint, he visualises the particular brush to be used and the resultant mark it offers, be it a blob, a streak, a soft smear or the smooth slab of a palette knife. In this way his vibrant surfaces are built up with great economy of means and by an accumulation of dynamic single brush marks. The' subject matter' of Derek's work is not only the figures and landscapes that populate the canvases, but colour moods, the symbolism of colour and the very texture of the painted surface.
Several distinct themes reoccur in Derek's oeuvre and significant examples of these are to be found in this Tribute Exhibition.
Portraiture: Since his student days Derek has painted portraits, from commissioned dignitaries both civic and religious, to intimate images of the subsistence farming folk of remote rural Ireland.
Family groups: This has been a particular speciality of Derek's over the years, and commissions have allowed him to paint in situ in a range of homes throughout the UK and Ireland, always alert to family dynamics and the 'intriguing subject; of family relationships.'
Landscape: As he discovered, the practical difficulties of working plein air in oil paint are formidable. In the1960's and 70s Derek developed ways of mounting fairly large watercolour papers on ply wood boards and transporting these to the NW Highlands of Scotland where he was particularly fond of the wild and beautiful rocky scenery, a love he shares with his wife Pat Semple. From this period we have many examples of his substantial topographical and geological landscapes. The ancient contorted metamorphic rock formations, with their extraordinary brick reds, pale pinks and jet blacks splashed by vivid green lichens, are characteristic of the vivid subject matter.
Animals: From the early days of teaching comparative anatomy, acknowledging, " animals are as interesting as human beings". Derek has often populated his paintings with studies of animals. From Connemara horses to portraits of dogs, sheep and even a prize white bull.
Religious Themes: Derek had a Catholic schooling and upbringing, and from the outset of his career as an artist, religious philosophy and biblical motifs reoccur in his imagery, in various guises. Moreover, he had painted portraits of several luminaries of the Church, for example, Cardinal Basil Hume, and he has made works to hang in St Mary's cathedral and other Scottish churches.
A major commission of the 1960s was to create a Resurrection to be placed in the semi-circular space behind the high alter in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Lauriston, Edinburgh. Derek worked hard on this piece, taking inspiration from Ghirlandaio to populate the scenes he devised, with contemporary characters ..the church organist, the verger; his own wife and children, and Archbishop Grey. Excellent preparatory drawings for this work are on view in this exhibition. The fate of the piece is less happy. 10 years after its dedication, the whole mural was wallpapered over. It is to be hoped that an enlightened future congregation will see it revealed and restored.
Derek Clarke has retained that early vision he had as a young artist, throughout his 72 year career. Of his work he has said "I have admired a vast range of artists in my time..but have always remained steadfast and never imitated or been a disciple to any 'ism'.
He is still painting." I paint every day of the week so long as the light is good. That is why I am as old as I am! ..I don't know if I have been an inspiration to others, but I hope I have painted with integrity."
This exhibition celebrates the achievements of Derek's long career and stands testimony to the high regard in which he is held by former students, patrons and fellow Members of the RSA.