The precise process in keeping it real

Carey Clarke’s retrospective at the RHA shows how this respected artist’s painterly realism is not a virtuosic trick but something…

Carey Clarke’s retrospective at the RHA shows how this respected artist’s painterly realism is not a virtuosic trick but something hard-earned

CAREY CLARKE has long been one of the most popular and respected of Ireland’s established academic artists, and deservedly so. During the years when the Royal Hibernian Academy seemed locked into a terminal decline, the annual exhibition included much mediocre work by artists who were really academicians in name only, lacking some of the fundamental technical and imaginative skills the term implies. There were always honourable exceptions and, from his earliest appearances in the exhibition, Clarke was one of them.

In an interview, the celebrated German painter Gerhard Richter responded to compliments on his technical virtuosity by pointing out that he is not, in fact, a virtuoso: rather, he said, he is just a hard worker who has sufficient taste to know when something isn’t good enough. The current retrospective at the RHA strongly suggests that the same thing could apply to Clarke. People respond to the exceptional realism of his technique, but look closely and it’s clear that the painterly realism is not a virtuosic trick but something hard-earned, built up slowly, carefully and methodically – the fruit of a work ethic that the RHA once looked to be in danger of losing.

Born in Donegal in 1936, the only child of Protestant middle-class parents (his father was an engineer), Clarke went to school in Dublin and then, from 1954, attended the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). He’d never taken to school life, but he flourished under the traditional academic regime at NCAD, where he was an outstanding, prize-winning student. He taught part-time there immediately following his graduation and, apart from an abortive foray into advertising, was in the college as a teacher until his retirement in 1995. An associate of the RHA from 1967, he became a full member in 1981 and was its president from 1992 to 1996.


There are several distinct bodies of work in the retrospective: still life and interiors, landscapes, and portraits. In terms of layout and design, the exhibition is too densely hung. It’s just a continuous stream of paintings, virtually all of them denied sufficient breathing space. One side-effect of this is that groupings of paintings don’t read effectively – an intriguing series of seasonal views of suburban back gardens from the studio window being a case in point. It cries out for some separation but is lost in the unvarying procession of images.

As one might expect, there is a slightly rawer feeling to some of the earliest pieces in the show, dating from the 1960s. As time went by, Clarke quickly eliminated all traces of brush-strokes and other definite marks from the paintings, aiming for something at times very close to photographic realism. Our fascination with pictorial illusion extends back to the earliest art ever made, and apparently remains undimmed.

Yet even when he is depicting southern locations bathed in warm Mediterranean light, Clarke’s yen for absolute control and endlessly refined detail lends a certain chilly quality to the genuine appeal of his work. This isn’t a defect, it’s just an aspect of what he does, and it clearly strikes a chord with many people, because his paintings have been much sought after by collectors.

The chill extends to the management of his still lifes, which are often spare, clinical arrangements of just a few ornate objects including, typically, a copper pot, a cut glass decanter and a lace tablecloth, presumably selected for the representational problems and opportunities they pose. Clarke sets them up in his studio against a blank wall and applies himself to expertly describing the fall and play of light on the various surfaces and the intricacies of the shadows cast.

Clarke’s landscape subjects encompass Ireland, southern Europe and the Middle East. Put together his Irish landscapes and you have a formidable body of work, with locations ranging from suburban Foxrock to a stormy Achill. In fact, isolate the Irish landscapes and you could well be getting towards the core of his artistic achievement. Many of the overseas subjects have a distinctly touristy picturesqueness that undercuts the skill of their making.

This isn't to say that he's made no fine paintings abroad, but Ireland as a subject, urban and rural, draws some terrific, ambitious works from him. They include those suburban views already mentioned, Dublin city centre from the NCAD in Northern Prospect,several Donegal views, including the exceptional Towards the End of Winter, a fine classical landscape in Camus, Connemara, the exemplary Blessington Lakesand the Achill paintings. These and others confirm him as a significant realist painter of the Irish landscape.

He is an occasional portrait painter and has risen to the challenge when it has come his way, making paintings that are exceptional by any standard. Highlights include portraits of the playwright Tom Murphy, Maura McGilligan, Lara Sommerville, Hannah Bloom Teskey, several self-portraits and a large-scale picture of his daughter Michelle. All are tremendously alive.

Tellingly, the preparatory studies for a portrait of Niall Crowley have more vigour to them than the finished work, and the Garret FitzGerald portrait, while more than adequate, is oddly unbalanced, with the subject’s head appearing as if it belongs to a painting with a different tonal scale entirely from the rest of the composition (something that happens on more than this one occasion).

In the more studied, ceremonial portraits, Clarke plausibly aims for something like Ingres rather than John Singer Sargent, who is often mentioned as a point of comparison. There is one small gem, his Portrait of a Lady.

In a rare, revealing statement accompanying an Arts Council exhibition, A Special Place, in 1989, Clarke wrote of his own painting: "My work is clearly realistic. Nevertheless I sometimes transcend this obsessiveness with realism and create the occasional image that is imbued with lyrical feeling. I would like to be able to do this all the time." His forays into allegorical compositions, as in Transitory Life or Elegy for Our Time, suggest that his realistic instincts have been sound. Here's hoping he sticks with them.

Carey Clarke: A RetrospectiveRoyal Hibernian Academy, Gallagher Gallery, 15 Ely Place Until February 26th

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times