Eularia Clarke: Painter of Religion
by Rebecca Sherlaw-Johnson, Amazon, £15
The painter Eularia Clarke is not well known. I hope this comprehensive biography, written by her granddaughter, will go some way to remedy this. Her paintings deserve wider recognition and appreciation – her life, with its many tribulations and rarer triumphs, cannot be separated from them.
Born into a musical and artistic family, middle class but with little money, Eularia suffered from genteel poverty for most of her life. Her circumstances were not helped by a brief marriage in 1937 to a charming but profligate musician, Cyril Clarke. By the end of the war he had abandoned her, leaving her with two young children.
It was during a visit to Florence when she was 16 that she realised “I want to be a religious artist like Fra Angelico.” His frescoes in San Marco stirred all Eularia’s latent spiritual yearnings, alongside a powerful urge to translate these on to canvas, though she came from an essentially agnostic family. Yet it was to be 30 years before she could realise this secret dream. Struggling as a single parent, forced to take a variety of jobs simply to make ends meet, such as teaching in prep schools and giving peripatetic music lessons, left her no time or energy to fulfil her artistic calling.
Several elements eventually combined to change her circumstances: scraping together the money to buy a small cottage in Winchester in 1949 gave the family much-needed stability. Her two children, Rachael and James, gradually began to lead more independent lives – and, in 1959, she became a Catholic. This, as she wrote later with wry humour, came about after meeting a young musician, John Stallard, in 1956. Playing with him in amateur quartets, she once heard him say: “Damn, I’ve got to go to Mass.” She commented: “This remark brought me into the Catholic Church.”
As she was to say many years later, without her conversion “there would have been no paintings”. Like other artist-converts such as the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, Eularia responded to the visual, sensual side of the Church – what she called “Grand Opera”: “candles, incense, processions and palms and vestments”.
Although she often struggled with the Church’s more flawed and human side, and felt that the all-male hierarchy ignored the particular gifts of women, she remained a faithful Catholic for the rest of her life. Her doubts, resentments and questionings were confided in her diaries. Frank, uninhibited and self-revelatory, they are often cited by her biographer.
It was in her diary that Eularia wrote of her “sense of great urgency … I really must use my life … I feel the terrific power rising in me, the power to make pictures out of everything I’ve ever seen, Heaven and Charing Cross. All England full of Gospel happenings.” This intuition is the key to her paintings. Unlike the religious paintings of Stanley Spencer, whom she admired and with whom she is sometimes compared, Eularia kept her artistic focus firmly on the supernatural dimension, determined to find its sacred resonances in ordinary life. The mystical features of her paintings are more deliberately mingled with the mundane, the homely and the domestic. There is a warmth as well as intensity to her vision that Spencer lacks.
In her last decade, from 1960 to 1970, Eularia often suffered ill-health. She had breast cancer in 1960 and the lung cancer that was to kill her flared up in 1967. Given this, and her always fragile financial state, her output and creativity during these 10 years was extraordinary: more than 90 paintings of Gospel stories, full of drama, tenderness and originality, forcing the viewer to re-examine the parables and events of Christ’s life in the light of her unique vision.
Her interpretations are always highly personal, a fusion of the domestic and the divine, often including deliberately distorted perspectives and figures, yet always mindful of the mysterious, sacred quality of the themes she was depicting.
Eularia was well aware, as her biographer puts it, that “her choice to be a religious painter was a lonely, unfashionable and difficult one”. Like many artists, she herself had a difficult temperament, described by Sherlaw-Johnson as “colourfully outrageous, unconventional, outspoken and eccentric”. As those who knew and loved her recognised, “Humility was not a quality that she ever mastered.”
What emerges from this biography is a woman of great courage, never deflected from her goal whatever the obstacles in her path, an artist true to her vision of how the Incarnation is meant to affect ordinary lives and alive to the ways this might be achieved.
Her paintings, which she wanted to be kept intact as a collection rather than dispersed, can be viewed in an online gallery under her name, put together in her centenary year by her family. They make a startling and moving exhibition: Heaven and Charing Cross united indeed.
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