Robert James Clarke: The playful and affectionate artist

By Kate Johnson

“It was ten in the morning” the artist Robert James Clarke recalls, “She had a gin and tonic in one hand, a fag in the other, she was wearing a blue chinchilla bomber jacket, and she was looking quite fantastic”. Well, of course, how else would you expect Kate Moss to answer the door? She was ‘over the moon’ with the portrait that Robert had painted and delivered — and it wasn’t of her, for once, but of her beloved dog, Archie. 

The surprise isn’t that Robert makes house calls, but that he paints dogs, because when he was just a few years old, and gleefully peddling the park on his bike (with stabilisers), he was attacked by a huge Alsatian which knocked him off his bike and stood over him, growling. It left him traumatised, and afraid of dogs for the next forty years. 

And now, not only is Robert internationally renowned for his dog portraits, but the portraits are playful and affectionate. How did he get here? And why is he moving into horse portraiture? 

“I want to paint like I’m doing a crossword puzzle; trying to do the Times crossword in under 20 minutes is really hard but if you can, then you should. You can over-paint, over-deliberate, over-analyse. There has to be some spontaneity, especially in dogs.”

Based in New York, Robert grew up in Luton, the son of a bouncer who advised him to get a job as a bricklayer because “everyone knows there’s no money in art”. He ignored the advice in favour of London’s prestigious St Martin’s School of Art (the late Lucian Freud, Jarvis Cocker and Stella McCartney are fellow alumni). 

On graduation, he remembers, just as his dad predicted, “If you’re not making money from your art straight away, you get a job and then your art gets sidelined’. However, he had the courage of his creative convictions and made art his priority, “It was a defining moment when I stopped work and just did this. With all that understanding of what you’re about, you have to commit 100% to the art. Making money from your art is really difficult.”

“I’m a bit frightened of them, I was scared to get it wrong, as my style doesn’t lend itself to the horses but now I’ve tailored the way I work.” And, of course, the intimacy of people’s relationships with their horses are a mystery to non-horsey people. In truth, don’t all relationships seem mysterious and unknowable?

Difficult, yes, but not impossible. His drawings and paintings of birds were selling well in a shop in the seaside town of Whitstable, Kent, when someone asked, ‘Does he do dogs?’.” He does, as it turns out. “I met the dog, it bit me, and I painted this smooth haired fox terrier, Trevor. The owner used it as a Christmas card and sent it her friend the gallery owner Rebecca Hossack, who got in touch with me and asked me to be their dog painter…and that was how I was launched.” 

Just like that; it all sounds relaxed, inevitable, and laced with the essential element of luck. Robert’s lightness of touch belies the talent and experience. He takes his work seriously, but not solemnly. In fact, he denies having any ambition at all, and describes his process as less of the tortured, dark torment of the soul and more as “I want to paint like I’m doing a crossword puzzle; trying to do the Times crossword in under 20 minutes is really hard but if you can, then you should. You can over-paint, over-deliberate, over-analyse. There has to be some spontaneity, especially in dogs.”

“Doga are like mug shots, like he’s just popped his head in through a window. Dogs are hilarious”

His canine portraits are instantly recognisable, modern, intimate, warm, light, joyful. And still capable of reducing owners to tears. Robert describes them like “mug shots, like he’s just popped his head in through a window. Dogs are hilarious”.

So why the move to horses? Robert explains all the reasons why not. “They are so perfect, they have a precision to them. Dogs are messy, horses are exact and you have to look at a horse. I thought they all looked the same, which was a misconception on my part, because I’d never looked”. 

Of course, the more you look, the more you see. When I began riding out at a racing stable after a thirty year break, all the horses looked the same to me; aristocratic, giant mahogany forces of nature. Now, the horse I rode then is mine and I could pick him out of a herd of a thousand, from a distance. 

“Horse clients are very particular and there’s a level of faultlessness required to get it right.”

As Robert says, “Horse clients are very particular and there’s a level of faultlessness required to get it right. Sometimes I’m a great believer in the paint doing some work, rather than it looking like a photograph. I looked at lots of horse artists, their work is almost super-realism. It’s not the way I work, it put me on the back foot and I didn’t want to enter into it till I found the right style.”

Also, “I’m a bit frightened of them, I was scared to get it wrong, as my style doesn’t lend itself to the horses but now I’ve tailored the way I work.” And, of course, the intimacy of people’s relationships with their horses are a mystery to non-horsey people. In truth, don’t all relationships seem mysterious and unknowable?

“It’s like an out of body experience. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the technique and I know when I’m getting it right, there is a complete magic and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve been successful. I capture the essence.”

Finally, he was out of excuses. He spoke to enough equestrians to realise that there was a gap in the market for something not photographic, something less precious. And so, he painted my ex-racehorse, Stop the Show. I sent him a photograph taken with my iPhone, and I waited. I wondered if he’d see him the way that I did, and if he did, I thought I’d scream with joy when I saw it, but I didn’t. I sat in still and awed silence and I stared and stared, moved beyond words. He caught him. Not just his spectacular beauty, but his presence, who he is, his truth. It’s completely remarkable and profoundly affecting. 

Robert agrees, “It all came together; the eyes were integral to the picture. Looking at it, it’s a lovely painting, I’m really happy with it, it captured something. There’s more light in a painting than a photograph, it’s got a soul and that’s the difference. Everyone’s a photographer these days, and a photograph is not worthy of the subject. I’m a traditionalist, I really like paint and sculpture.”

I wonder how he explains his effect. He says, “Sometimes I think I’m touched with genius (and sometimes I think, what am I doing?).  Sometimes it’s just like magic, it really is, I’m looking at it, it doesn’t look anything like it should, then…what happened? It’s like an out of body experience. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the technique and I know when I’m getting it right, there is a complete magic and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve been successful. I capture the essence.”

RobertJamesClarkeArt.com

Kate Johnson
Kate Johnson

Kate is a freelance journalist, based in London. She has been riding since she was six and is obsessed with all things about horses, particularly her sweet and soulful ex racehorse, Stop the Show.

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