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Derek Clarke

Artist and teacher.

Born: December 31, 1912; Died: February 10, 2014

DEREK Clarke, who has died in Edinburgh at the age of 101, was said to be the oldest working artist in the British Isles. Born a year and a half before the start of the First World War, he attended the leading Catholic public school, Ampleforth College in Yorkshire before confounding his father's expectations ("he would have liked me to have been an Empire-builder," he declared in a recent interview), and heading to London to study for a diploma at the Slade School of Art in London from 1931-1935.

At the Slade, where fellow students included his friend, the painter Mary Fedden, he only just missed the era of formidable teacher Henry Tonks who had retired in 1930. Speaking at the time of his 100th birthday exhibition at Edinburgh's Royal Scottish Academy in December 2011, Clarke recalled: "I couldn't have been there at a worse time. There was no one to look up to."

Clarke, who was still painting up until last September, observed: "I am one of these artists who, having completed their art school training by 1935, only had four years in which to establish themselves before war put an end to their careers - in many cases forever."

Born in Longthorpe, a small village outside Peterborough, Derek Clarke was the second of five children born to Percy Christopher Clarke, son of an enterprising businessman in Lincoln who made and sold a famous Victorian tonic called Clarke's Blood Mixture, and Muriel Gertrude Townsend, the daughter of an architect and granddaughter of a Lincolnshire vicar, who designed and made furniture for his own parish church.

In his teens, Clarke received tuition from a local sculptor called Jessie Elborne, who had worked in Rodin's Paris studio. This helped shape his approach to drawing and painting.

He had a younger brother, Anthony, whom he always regarded as being more talented, but his artistic promise ended with his death in action in August 1944.

On leaving the Slade, with no scholarship and no parental support behind him (the family business had declined in fortune by then), Clarke earned a living by painting portraits. He had always been a gifted portraitist and he received several high-profile commissions, including one in 1938, to paint Professor Henry Nicholas Ridley, the eminent British botanist who discovered a harmless method of tapping rubber trees that was vital for rubber production.

It was a portrait commission that took Clarke to the west coast of Ireland in 1937.

"As soon as I saw Connemara," he recalled years later, "I thought, this is the place for me." This personal artistic epiphany, among the Gaelic speaking rural folk in Rossaveel, Connemara, was to be the making of him as an artist.

He would return several times before the outbreak of war to develop the subject matter he had explored there, including portraiture, family groups, landscape, animals and religious themes.

The day after war was declared on September 3, 1939, Clarke joined the Durham light Infantry. He served in Tunisia, and, in 1943, was wounded in the spine.

By his own admission, he should have been paralysed, but ever the optimist, he viewed the year-long recuperation process as an opportunity to resume his painting.

Not for him the dreary washed out colours of wartime England, but, with a sparkling palette of vibrant colours influenced by Van Gogh and Cezanne, he flooded his canvases with bright imagery using paint he had managed to store since the days before the war, winning admiration from Stanley Spencer for work he showed at the New English Club, and securing portrait commissions from luminaries such as the Iranian Military Attaché.

Clarke had married Ann Swan in 1942 and the young couple lived against a backdrop of bombing and AK-AK fire, contrasting poignantly with concerts they attended given by Dame Myra Hess in the National Galleries.

Immediately after war ended, even though his wife was pregnant with Christopher, the first of their four sons, he returned to Connemara to work through his fascination with the lives and characters who inhabited that wild landscape.

He recalled years later: "I got an enormous amount of work done in six months. When I returned to London, the Bond Street Galleries were not interested. They were only looking for abstract and surrealist art from the US and Europe."

A true appreciation of this superb body of work had to wait until 2004 when it was exhibited at The Frederick Street Gallery in Dublin to much acclaim and the sale of all but a few of the paintings and drawings.

By 1947, with the Clarke family rapidly expanding, he was invited by Robert Lyon, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), to join the staff of its Drawing and Painting School.

Mr Lyon was keen to introduce new ideas in teaching art, and the young tutor's colleagues included Robin Philipson, Alan Carr, Leonard Rosoman, Johnny Maxwell and William Gillies. Clarke found a febrile atmosphere in Edinburgh, with half the students recently demobbed from the armed forces and half fresh from school.

Star students at the art school included Elizabeth Blackadder, John Houston, Pat Semple (who would later become his second wife) and John Bellany, whom he described recently as "one of the best students I ever had".

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. Throughout a three-decade long career at ECA, he continued to draw and paint with zeal in his distinctive palette of vivid colours.

He received several commissions to create artwork in churches which led him to experiment with various media, including sand-blasted glass panels. His enormous mural in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Lauriston, Edinburgh (1957-8) showed the resurrected Christ, with the faithful on either side, wearing contemporary attire. The mural was covered up in mid-1960s, a situation Clarke described as being 'of great sorrow to him.'

In 1973, a year before the death of his first wife Ann, he painted a portrait of Basil Hume, then Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey.

He retired from ECA in 1978, and immersed himself full-time in his art. He continued to paint landscapes in the north of England and in Sutherland, where he and his second wife Pat Semple, whom he married in 1992, lived for several years.

He always maintained a positive, constantly questioning outlook and his last painting, which he finished in September 2013, was a religious work called The Transfiguration. He was awarded the MBE last year.

Derek Clarke is survived by his wife, Pat Semple, and three sons; Christopher, Tristram and Andrew. He is predeceased by Ann and his son Peregrine.

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