Eularia Clarke saw her paintings as more than just illustrations of bible stories

The painter Eularia Clarke, 1914-1970, is not well known. Now a comprehensive biography has been published: Eularia Clarke: Painter of Religion, by her granddaughter, Rebecca Sherlaw-Johnson. I hope it will go some way to introducing this artist to a wider public. It shows us a woman who was courageous, demanding, generous and obstinate, who contended with poverty and ill-health yet who was never distracted from her vocation as an artist.

Visiting Florence when she was aged 16 and seeing Fra Angelico’s paintings for the first time, Eularia realised that “This is what I want to be. I want to be a religious artist, like Fra Angelico.” Yet this sense of her vocation was not to be realised until the last decade of her life, between 1960 and 1970. By this time her two children (whom she had raised on her own after her husband’s desertion at the end of the war) were leading independent lives, so she no longer needed to earn money as a fulltime music and art teacher for their sake; and, crucially, she had become a Catholic on 24 March 1959. Years later she admitted that “without her Catholicism there would have been no paintings.”

For Eularia, painting and her faith were inseparable. In her final ten years, before dying of lung cancer, she painted over 90 canvases of Gospel stories and scenes of Church worship, an extraordinary output for someone who knew her choice to be a religious painter was a “lonely, unfashionable and difficult one.” Intrigued by the life and work of this difficult but indomitable woman I asked her biographer why she described her grandmother as “a painter of religion” rather than as a religious painter”?

Sherlaw-Johnson tells me that Eularia always saw her paintings “as being more than just works of art; they weren’t simply illustrations of Bible stories; they were her ministry, in which she was expressing her own experience of her faith and her spirituality.”

Eularia’s paintings, shared between her two children, Rachael and James, are sometimes lent out to exhibitions, most recently in Oxford. Why was she so reluctant to sell any of them? “She wanted to help people understand that God is living in our everyday world, here and now. So she saw the collection as a whole as important as each individual painting. Her dream and intention was that they be seen as a collection by as many people as possible.”

She adds, “Displayed together they are much more than the sum of their parts. Without wishing to sound too fanciful, it is as if they talk with each other and ask you to listen in.”

Comparisons have been made between Eularia’s paintings and the religious paintings of Stanley Spencer. What distinguishes hers from his? Sherlaw-Johnson thinks that Spencer’s “have a more ethereal, mystical quality to them, whereas Eularia’s are full of drama and emotion. She shows the minutiae of life that women tend to see. There is an earthiness to her work which I have never found in Spencer.” She also feels that Spencer’s paintings reflect a personal enquiry; Eularia’s came from her conviction “about the validity of Christ in daily life.”

Struck by the intensity of the vision within some of the paintings in the Living Gospel section of the website devoted to Eularia’s legacy, I am curious to know if her granddaughter has favourites among them. She tells me that “they keep changing. At the moment I particularly like Fire on the Earth, a powerful insight into the way people approach a personal experience of God. Also Across the Desert, which is about trusting God even if you are not sure where you are going; and Buying the Wood, because it is such a gentle depiction of a private moment between a father and son.”

In her biography Sherlaw-Johnson, whose grandmother died when she was ten, writes of Eularia’s extraordinary creativity and force of character, her tactility and vitality.” Has she particular memories? “I remember her as immensely positive and fun. She felt like one of us when our parents seemed boring and adult. She had a powerful presence and was the one person I always looked forward to seeing. She bought me my first violin and encouraged us to paint. She didn’t mind what we did at her house, which was an eccentric place.”

All Eularia’s paintings can be viewed on her website: www.eulariaclarke.com Vivid and dramatic, a moving mixture of the homely and the other-worldly, the humorous and the holy, they provide an idiosyncratic and soulful interpretation of Gospel passages and liturgical feast days. They are looked after by a family Trust called The Eularia Clarke Collection. The family is happy to consider exhibition requests and long-term loans of individual canvases.