Clare Shenstone: Bacon, Bowie and that time in Berlin when I dreamt about dolphins…
An incredible artist. Clare Shenstone is a fabulous and prolific London-based painter. The people portrayed in her work seem to come to life in an incredible balance between canvas and colour. She was only sixteen when she posed for the poster of Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol’s 1966 experimental movie. She worked as a model, and in 1971 she played Ophelia alongside Sir Ian Mckellen (albeit just for a performance, as she was the understudy for the part) in The Prospect Theatre Company production of Hamlet. Despite her many talents, art was the one thing that was THERE from the start: she recalls drawing and painting since she was a little child: animals, people and trees were, and still are, her favourite subjects. While she was studying at the Royal College of Art, Francis Bacon saw her works and liked them, to the point of buying one of them, Janet. They soon struck up a close friendship, and Bacon commissioned her a cloth head portrait of himself, and later Clare produced series of studies of him. Yet, this is but one part of the story; the other is Bowie related. She was a witness (with Peggy Burns) at Bowie and Angela’s wedding on 22 March 1970, and had known both David Jones the young man and David Bowie the incredible artist. She has been in touch with his relatives and his friends, portrayed him, in a nutshell, she has been a little but significant part of his life. Some of Clares’s paintings are kept in museums such as the National Portrait Gallery and The Sainsbury Centre, but she is herself the custodian of some of Bowie’s secrets and, in this interview, she decides to reveal a few… These days, some of her amazing portraits of ‘the man who fell to Earth’ are on show at the David Bowie Tribute exhibition in London.
: Ms. Shenstone I’m really fascinated by your work, also because you are a really prolific artist: self-portraits, paintings with human but also animal beings… and so many different styles and techniques… Which of them gave you more satisfaction or pleasure, as an artist?
CS: The straight forward answer to your question is… the best ones! The ones where everything went right. This is the one out of a series which is the ‘key’ as I call it. This is when something happens other than you expect. A mistake, an accident, a random brush mark or a splash of colour and this transforms what you thought you were working towards into a magic dimension. I call it the key work because it is the trigger that stimulates a whole series of other works. Like discovering an unknown pathway through an unknown world leading to an unknown place. I am constantly experimenting with images and also with materials in order to never be repetitive or predictable and to keep extending my understanding and ability to make new images in a unique way. Whether my subject is a human person or an animal I am not painting their likeness, which I see as a mask, I am painting their feelings, emotions and what it is under their mask. To me there is no difference between humans and animals. Each individual is a unique being and we all only have one gift of life.
: Talking about your work… is it affected by Francis Bacon’s influence? Did your style change after you met him? What do you feel you have learned from him?
CS: Many, many painters’ work influence me, but also Egyptian art and primitive art and much of life. However, before Francis saw my work, I had written my masters thesis on Portrait of George Dyer Crouching. I admired his work enormously.. and yes, it certainly influenced me. His defiant courage to express himself as he wished, his total uniqueness and expression of life as it is, alone in a room. His use of paint whereby the paint becomes the image and yet is never denied it’s identity as simply being paint. The paint is alive with energy and the image is fixed within it. No. my style did not change. Francis wanted my work, not a copy of his!
: From what I have read, the human Francis Bacon seems to have shown you a fragility that did not appear from his paintings: is it true? On a personal level, do you think he has given to you some important lessons?
CS: What I learned from Francis was the courage to go my own way. To believe in myself and do battle in order to realise my own vision. But you must also bear and overcome your constant insecurity that you’re not good enough. I believe all great artists have this ying-yang battle. Total courage and commitment to their work and of it’s quality knowing it is uniquely their own. The first time I spoke to Francis, which was on the telephone, he told me he had seen my work on display at my degree show at the Royal College of Art. He said he greatly admired it and asked to buy a head called Janet. I answered that I could not think of anyone that I would rather have it. I said that I considered him to be easily the greatest painter alive in the world today. He just remarked, “Well, great minds think alike, don’t they?”. There was I, a student not even graduated yet, and here was Francis Bacon treating me with great respect as a fellow painter, and this attitude remained all through the four years we worked together. Francis would ring me and ask my opinion on various materials or methods or mediums and what I thought of this or that painters work or a single painting. He always treated me as an absolute equal. At the first sitting, which was at his studio, I was staggered by how close to the surface his emotions were to the point where his eyes filled with tears. Interestingly, that moment is the oil sketch that David and Iman purchased. However, in the next moment his expression would harden and make a shiver go down your spine. This created a huge tension in the atmosphere which I think he rather enjoyed. Everyone, even close friends, were always on edge in his presence because he was so unpredictable. He lived only in the present moment so you had no idea what he may do or be like in the next second. Also it was absolutely real and natural, no game, no manipulation, just a razor edge of panic hanging over the conversation. I found this created the need to be totally straightforward and honest, which was how I was anyway. I remember Francis rang me up one morning and said, “Some American painter rang me a few minutes ago. He said he had just arrived in London. He was a huge admirer of my work and could he call by my studio?” I asked Frances who this was and listed a few names Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Rauchenberg? He said “I can’t remember.” So I asked what happened and Francis said he had shouted down the phone ”No!” And hung up. I said “Well Francis one or two of these American painters have done some interesting things…”. Francis replied “I’m not waisting my time with makers of wallpaper!” I was left with an image of De Kooning or Rothco stearing at their phone speechless!
: Before you even knew Bacon, you also had the opportunity to be involved with a work by Andy Warhol. Did you meet him?
CS: I did not work with or ever meet Warhol. I was rung up by Alan Aldridge and he asked me if I would be the image on his poster for the UK release of Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. He told me he wanted to make me into the Chelsea Hotel. I went down the road to his studio and we talked about it. Donald Silverstein was the photographer. My personal story and Alan’s personal story of making the poster is recorded in Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes. A book on Alan’s work published by Thames and Hudson. All I know is there is a quote of Warhol’s comment on seeing the poster “If only the film was as good as the poster!”.
: I heard that your mother’s job influeced your art. I’d like to ask you if your love for painting was influenced by your architect father too…
CS: The only influence my darling Ma had on my obsession with painting and drawing as a child was to be mad with me for drawing on the polished wood dining table with nothing under the paper to protect the table top. I scratched and marked that poor table mercilessly and suffered the consequences! It was my father who influenced me. He had studied architecture at Clare Collage Cambridge (that is why I was called Clare). He won a scholarship to study in Rome. He was architect to the Duke of Bedford and was looking after The Bedford Estate which was the Bloomsbury area of London. I would wait for him to come home and show him what I’d been drawing or painting. He would guide me and give me tips like never copy pictures in magazines and so on, only draw pictures from real life. He always encouraged me to look at what I was drawing, see it’s structure underneath and the texture of it’s surface. To study it as you draw so you get to understand it’s spirit and everything it is. Once he simply said: “Draw this plant as if you were trying to explain what it was to a Martian who had never been to Earth and knew nothing of it.” Later I was trying to use oil paint for the first time and was in a state because it all smudged everywhere and I could not control it. He told me to use the smudges and bleeding of one colour into another and let it do what it does. Learn to make your way brush stroke by brush stroke. He was my first teacher, or I would say guide, because nobody can teach you how to paint or draw they can only help and encourage you on your path.
: When and why did you get to know David Bowie?
CS: My brother was in a queue at the bank and got into conversation with a young man called Calvin Lee. Simon, my brother, ended up inviting him to my flat because Calvin wanted to meet me. Simon was staying with me at that time. Calvin wanted to introduce me to David so he took me to a performance at Beckenham College one lunchtime where David was playing guitar and singing his own songs. It was in a not very big wooden floored classroom and just a few students were there. David sang his heart out and was accomplished and natural. He was obviously very talented. He invited me to go back to his house for a cup of tea and I met Terry, David’s half brother, and Margaret, his mum. Then David’s father died quite suddenly and David asked me to come back to the house after the funeral. He took my hand and guided me up to his room where we sat on his bed and talked. He told me he’d been in love with a girl called Hermione who was a beautiful ballet dancer and she had been offered an amazing job in New York and had left him for her career. I don’t think he gave me quite accurate details now but this had happened only a week or so before so he was in a very depressed state [actually Hermione Farthingale left David some months before, Ed.]. His father dying ontop of that was hard to take and I tried to gently talk him through to his music and ambitions and to what really mattered to him now. I am not sure whether he had met Angie or not by then? I remember he told me about her at some point and I think I met her two or three times at his house. The evening of David’s fathers funeral was the time I first got to know David.
: Both of you had the passion for the theatre, did you ever play together? Theatre and painting, more than a passion in common; however, you both have chosen to relegate the theater to something complementary, taking others as “master classes”: you have become a professional painter, for David painting remained a hobby.
CS: David and I both loved the theatre and it was the way I chose to earn a living because I did not see how anyone could make money out of painting. To me my painting was a very private activity. I called it my research because I was learning from it. I did not paint pictures as things to sell, as products. I drew and painted to understand the world I lived in and learn more about ways to communicate my experience of being alive. I had trained in voice production, acting, speaking of verse and prose and drama from the age of six when I played Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream at school. The theatre I was working in was classical – Ibsen, Chekov, Shakespeare and so on. But the problem with working as an actor is that theatre is an event and that event is different every performance and takes time to unfold. It is a collaboration of many people. The actor does not choose which part he or she will play, the director decides that. The actors are not necessarily playing the part they would want to be playing and some of them do not like each other but they are all stuck getting on with it. It requires everyone to work together unselfishly for the perfect performance and that does not happen often. Both David in his work and I in mine need to be in control of everything. In my case it is the ultimate solitary activity and I am souly responsible for the result. David has always been about his music and he is a performer. The whole event would just not happen if he was not there. For instance an understudy could not go on for him instead! His theatre was not to interperate a play, his theatre was himself.
: What were your impressions of Terry, David’s half-brother, when you met him?
CS: Terry was quite withdrawn and did not push himself forward. He was very sweet and the first time I met him I just thought he was a bit shy, I did not realise he had any problem at all. Once I had been there a few times he was joining in with the conversation more. The thing that staggered me was how different they were to each other both physically and in every other way.
: I suppose that you know David’s pictorial work: what is your professional judgment about it?
CS: My favourite of David’s pantings – from those I have seen – is Child in Berlin, because it is the stairs to the flat in Berlin. It may be that the little boy is Duncan but equally the boy could be David. I really love it. However, I would never try to judge David’s paintings professionally. David would not ever let me see any of his paintings. In a letter he sent me between visits to Berlin he wrote that he had painted “six canvas monuments” which is what he seemed to call his paintings at that time. David’s art was what he did because he liked painting and his art was another insight into David’s mind.
: David himself admitted that he was inspired by Bacon, not only in his pictorial style, but also in choosing some photographic shots (I think how his Frank Ockenfels 3′ picture (2003) on the throne reminds me of Bacon’s Pope): do you think the bond is actually visible? There’s probably a visual influence also in David’s videoclip Dead Man Walking (1997).
CS: It is very strange that… on one of my visits to Berlin I asked David if he knew of Frances Bacon’s work. He told me he didn’t know at all. I suggested that he have a look at it. Maybe he was lying, who knows? I was very surprised. In the video Dead Man Walking there is a thin box image behind him and Frances Bacon did use that image in his Pope paintings. In the case of Francis he is traping the image on the canvas by caging it. As well as being a pictorial device this is also a symbolic way of referring to the Pope’s unique position. He is trapped as Pope in the Vatican but also he is protected as well. Frances took that idea from photographs of the trials of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1951 and he used it again and again. The pieces of meat are also there in David’s video and both of these could be a gesture of tribute to Bacon. Equally they could be a tribute to Damian Hirst, who David admired and was friend with. Damien used to exhibit many of his three dimensional ideas in perspex boxes and of course often used meat as well. David could even have used the ideas from the same sources as Bacon, i.e. photos from the Eichmann trial and the images of meat by Rembrandt. I think it would be fair to say that there are very few artists in many different fields who have not been influenced by Bacon’s work.
: Once (1995, 1.Outside EPK) David affirmed that it’s not possible to come to an end of a painting, but you can reach at one point when you have to stop, and the great artist knows when he has to stop. What do you think about? Looking at your paintings it seems you have completely reached that delicate equilibrium: pictures not formally finished, but artistically complete.
CS: I find that there are two main ways of knowing when the process of painting must stop. Firstly when the next two marks you place on the canvas are destructive. More work on the painting will destroy it. I call that overworking the painting or polishing the apples. This makes the painting die like suffocating it. The other way is when you stand back to look at the painting and you are surprised by it and recognise it at the same time. Like giving birth you see this being that has a life of tis own and you cannot believe that you made it. All you can do is look and think, how did I do that? The shortest time I have painted a finished oil in is just over one hour. The longest time I have spent working on a painting is seven years. I am not sure I agree with David, that it is not possible to come to the end of a painting because a painting is a physical object with a limited surface area. There are practical reasons why you must come to the end otherwise it will, at some point, not be a painting but a sculpture. As the paint builds up it will go from 2D to 3D. I work in series because I find one painting stimulates the need to develop the first into another and then another and one painting is a development of the one before.
: There’s a quite famous picture of you with David in Berlin, dating back 1977, with Coco Schwab and Romy Haag. What are your memories about it?
CS: I remember the occasion when this picture was taken very well. David rang me in London and said he had been ill and very low and he wondered wether I would come to Berlin. I think Coco came on the phone as well and told me he really needed me to come and see him. At that time I had just started at the Royal College of Art and was also with the Royal Shakespeare Company performing a Chekov play at the Aldwych Theatre at night. I would cycle to the Royal College every morning, and work all day, then jump on my bike to rush off to the theatre. It was somewhat demanding on ones time! However, the play was in repertoire with another production which I was not in, so I went to Berlin the next day. David was waiting for me and drove me back to the flat. He told me about his troubles and how it had affected him. Then he played me Low and he talked about Kraftwerk and Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. Jim [Iggy] was staying at the flat too, and David said let’s go out.. so Coco, David and I went to a Gay club and it turned out that this was all planned. They had closed the club too the public and were putting on a cabaret just for us – well, really for David. They were wonderful and kind and kept hugging me. There were three transvestites and they performed just for us, singing and dancing… and they were very very professional. One of them, asked if before we left, could they have a photograph of us all. So that is the story of that photo. Quite a while after that David told me one of them had committed suicide.
Anecdotes. Three of my favourite memories:
My favourite one:
: When you knew Bowie, you also became a friend of his first wife, Angela Barrett: did you keep in touch with her? What idea did you have of them as a couple at the time?
I believe I met Angie two or three times at David’s house but the first time I really remember her was when David and Angie knocked on my door early one evening and told me they were going to get married in the morning. They asked if they could stay the night at my place and then would I go with them to the registry office to be a witness at their wedding. So I said “Of course!” And asked them in. Angie claims there was a night of orgy between the three of us. All I can say is we ended up going to bed early and as there was only one bed we all climbed into it. If any kind of orgy took place, I must have been asleep! We went off in the morning and I bought Angie some flowers. We met Mary, David’s mum, there who was the other witness. After the ceremony David and Angie rushed off and I went back home. Angie was quite a character and defiantly not someone you would describe as shy and retiring. I liked her very much and we got on well.
As a couple they were not all lovey dovy, it was more of a partnership that was mutually beneficial. At that time David had begun to develop his career and needed someone to help him and organise behind the scenes. Angie was perfect. She took him on and was very much the image maker. She suggested he should dye his hair orange and wear makeup. I suspect she contributed to the making of his earlier transformations more than anyone. She was just what David needed and they were obviously very fond of each other at the least.
A bit later on they invited me to a roast dinner at Southend Road. Angie had cooked it all and Zoe was still a little baby. Angie was behaving in a very over the top way, which became a bit unbearable after a while. After the meal I asked David if she was behaving like this a lot and if so, how does he cope with it? He said that she had worked so hard to prepare all the food and gone through the birth of Zoe and he just shrugged his shoulders with his head on one side. Then after a performance at The Rainbow, which was the Lindsay Kemp collaboration show. Angie was trying to persuade me to go with them on the tour, but that was not going to happen. Quite a while later I was doing my BA at Chelsea School of Art and was cycling down the King’s Road on my way home. Suddenly a giant cadallic convertible appeared behind me and Angie was standing up on the back seat shouting at me. She said they were staying at the Hyde Park hotel and to call by and come and see them, and that David would love to see me. So I did. I must admit Angie seemed really pleased to see me but she was prancing around the room like a puppy with fleas. She then disappeared into another room. Then David appeared and asked me to come to his concert at Wembley which was The Station to Station Tour. After the concert he came off the stage and went to a white van. Before he jumped in the open back doors he turned around, looked directly towards me and waved. I waved back, then he jumped in and the van disappeared. Then Angie and I got into a Roles Royce and as it tried to move out the crowd/fans started banging on the windows and trying to climb onto the car. It was terrifying. Obviously we were the decoys so David could escape in the back of the van. I was not amused, but at least Angie was there too. When we arrived at the flat they were staying in we went into a very large furnished room full of people waiting for David. After a while, David suddenly appeared. I was one end of the room and David came through the door, turned and walked to the other end of the room, and looked at me smiling and just waved again. It was extraordinary because it was as if there was nobody in the room except us, and he walked towards me, we hugged and then sat either side of the table and talked. I don’t know where Angie went.
: You portrayed both David and Iman. What were the circumstances?
CS: I told David that I would love to paint Iman so after she said that she would like to do that we had the first sitting in London. She was such funny, any excuses for a giggle. We had most of the day and it was a pleasure. Then we had a second sitting and she came here to my studio. I worked on her portrait for quite a while and still have many drawings of her. They had an oil and I think two very large drawings.
: Despite a chronic illness you have been affected for years, art seems to invigurate your will and still feeds your passion. What are you painting at the moment?
CS: I am working with antique dolls and all sorts of old and damaged small figures of both humans and animals that were dug up from the rubble after the Second World War. They are strange, disturbing images and remind me of the terrible pictures that are shown of the wars going on now. Dolls with cracked or broken heads and missing arms or legs, I’m not describing anymore as I have to get oil with it and I don’t know how long I’ve got.
: Bowie and Blackstar. It seems that David faced the death with his unique sensibility and created an incredible work of art: to be very close to a new transformation and still keep on, produce art again and again. What is your opinion?
CS: This is very raw territory for me right now for obvious reasons. I believe that artists have a ‘life force’ that makes them want, or even need, to express themselves. The stronger this energy/need the more intense is the drive to create more and communicate what they are experiencing. For a real artist this is a need, even an obsession, that is a conformation that you exist as a person and you want to leave your message to the world. I believe for some stubborn, dedicated people they can even defy death until they have completed the task they have set themselves. Look at the extraordinary physical feats, marathons and money raising journeys that people with fatal diseases can complete in order to raise money to help others with a similar condition. David had this drive and someone else I worked with, the writer Dennis Potter. He would not let go until his final play was completed. I remember viewing an absolute exquisite painting by Modigliani and the label said “This was Modigliani’s last sitting. He died less than two hours after.”
: I have recently read Dylan Jones’s biography on David A Life. He spent some sweet words on you in the Introduction and ask myself what about his allusion to you and the lyrics of ‘Heroes’… (*)
CS: The ‘Heroes’ quote that Dylan has mentioned is quite true. It is all about a day David and I spent together in Berlin. It began with David asking me if I dreamed about him because he dreamed about me. I told him I had just had a beautiful dream about swimming with dolphins. Then we spent that day walking to The Wall and David took me through Check Point Charlie to the East.
: Could you please tell us something about the fifteen sketches of David that this autumn will be shown at Monica Colussi’s exhibition titled David Bowie Tribute?
CS: These fifteen heads came about at sometime during the summer of 1996. I received a parcel from Iman. In it was a lovely letter explaining that it would be David’s 50th birthday, which I knew was on January the 8th 1997. Iman explained that she had no idea what to give him and had thought that it would be rather wonderful to send a page of Japanese paper to each of David’s special friends and ask them to put something on this page as a message to David. Then to send the page back to her so she could have all the original pages bound into a book for David. I should have photographed it before I sent my page but that sort of thing would never have occurred to me at the time. The heads came out of an effort to make a composition for painting a head in oil straight onto the Japanese paper, which is what I did. I did photograph the oil head image so I am able to include it with the other study heads in photographic form. I also included on that Japanese paper a small photo of me at the 1969 Free Festival and a message to David. He did not know I was there because someone had tipped me off that he was in a foul mood, so I kept well away! [David’s father died some days before, Ed.]
: How much do you miss David?
CS: I would like to add just.. I know hidden in all his final works… there are secret messages to various special people and only those people will understand or recognise the ‘clues’. David is still talking to some of us.
(*) “Thank you also to the lovely Clare Shenstone (the inspiration of ‘Heroes’, and whose dream about swimming with dolphins is so central to the song), whom I spoke to at lenght about her connection with David, her time with him Berlin, and the peripatetic nature of their relationship; in the end she decided she didn’t want her story told, however our own connection more than compensated for my initial disappointment at this.” – from the Aknowledgments in David Bowie: A Life, by Dylan Jones (Preface Publishing, 2017).
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli and Elena Mattirolo
(A deep thank to Monica Colussi!)
David Bowie Tribute, an exhibition curated and organized by Monica Colussi, opens on 22nd September at the Fiat Chrysler Village in Wigmore Street, London.