Clare Shenstone is an English painter who holds a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art. Shenstone’s portraits exist in some of today’s most prominent public and private collections including The National Portrait Gallery and The Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury collection. Shenstone has been awarded the Brian Sinfield Fine Arts Award (2000) and the Public Choice Award, Hunting Art Prize (2001). Shenstone began her career as an artist, following her graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1979. Her portraits have since become internationally renowned, particularly those of Francis Bacon, her mentor and subject for many years.
Clare has worked tirelessly over the past few months to paint a series of pictures featuring species which appear on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This beautiful collection of pictures is being used by Synchronicity Earth to create a unique deck of playing cards designed to help highlight the extinction crisis that is threatening the survival of many of the world’s species.
I sat down with Clare to ask her about her work and about what motivated her to get involved in this unique project.
Q: When did you first start drawing and painting animals?
Clare Shenstone: I started drawing and painting before I went to school, it was an obsessive activity for me. I had an uncle who was a vet… Now I had always adored animals, but this uncle could not cope with putting animals down – the kittens people were not able to keep, or the old dogs on their last legs – so, when my mum was out collecting us from school, he used to come and leave a basket on the doormat and of course we would take in all these animals. We knew it was blackmail, obviously, because as soon as you had this little orphan animal, no matter what age, if you said “no we can’t look after it”, you knew that it was going to die.
I have never, in a very fundamental way, thought of humans and animals as being separate. I feel very much the same about an animal as I do about a person, and I have always felt this. I did not know anybody else felt differently…
Q: When you were older, you studied Fine Art at the Royal College of Art. During this period, how did you find animal subjects to paint?
CS: When I was at the Royal College, I was trying to get life classes going because nobody seemed to be able to draw, particularly the tutors, who could not draw to save their lives! But I could not get a model, so I started going off to the Natural History Museum. I used to just spend all day every day in the museum drawing skeletons. I went for the skeletons, because I like to draw movement. I want what I draw to be alive. Just because the animal is dead and it is only a skeleton, there is still this sense that it had its life and it has got its spirit and this is still there in the skeleton. Whenever I was looking at skeletons, I was seeing things in them. In all of them there is the reference to the human skeleton as well, and the connections between all of us – animals and people – are so absolutely clear when you see them this way. That was something I found fascinating and that is what I was looking at, even in skeletons of dinosaurs.
I also used to go to London Zoo, quite early in the morning, before it opened to the public. Some of the Royal College students could go there for free on Tuesdays. Strictly speaking, it was only the Graphics students who were allowed to go there – I was Fine Art – but I was never the kind of person to worry about that sort of thing…
When I went to the zoo, I could not bear seeing apes in cages, behind glass, and when you looked at the gorillas, there would be this gorilla sitting there and the way he looked at you, the torture of him being there, with these people coming past him all the time and taking flash photographs of him. Horrible!
But it was there that I met an orangutan for the first time. This orangutan was at the back of her enclosure and I immediately wanted to draw her.
So, I would sit and draw her and they used to bring her some fruit so she would come to the middle and have some food. Making contact with her took some time, but I would come and she knew that I was drawing. She knew that the way I was looking and the contact I was making was totally different to the normal human being, I was very aware of that, because she became interested.
I do not know how long I had been coming to draw her when one day she suddenly came down her enclosure, right up to the glass and she wanted to see what I was doing. I picked up the sketch book and showed her and she really looked at it. When I put it down, she put her hand against the glass, where the book had been, and I put my hand right on top of hers and – you know when you feel as if your heart is going to stop? It was utterly extraordinary because the contact was so total, there was nothing between us except this piece of glass….
Q: When you paint people, your approach seems to be to keep painting somebody until you feel you have truly captured the essence of that person, and this may mean painting many different versions of a picture. Does your approach to drawing and painting animals differ in any way?
CS: I have exactly the same attitude to drawing a person as drawing any animal or even plant. First of all, my approach, what I am going for, is what I call underneath the mask. I am trying to capture the life behind the mask. Somebody once came to see my pictures and told me that I do not paint people, I paint feelings. I had never thought about it like that, but that is what I am trying to get at.
Q: For this series of endangered species, you have had to paint from photo-graphs, for logistical reasons, and of course because many of the subjects are so endangered. What does that change about your approach?
CS: When I realized that I would need to use photographs as the basis, I did not even think of them as photographs. I think of them as images that I am taking and giving life to. Now, I said that I wanted to draw movement, because when you draw you need to be so accomplished and to have done so much with eye and hand that it becomes automatic. You can forget about all the technicalities and use your marks to make your subject alive. Each mark must be alive, must be part of this living thing. Each little mark is to indicate energy, feeling coming off the creature or the face or the human being or the beetle – it does not matter what it is – and identify with what it is feeling.
The potential for movement must always be there, for me, otherwise the image is dead.
When I am painting, I am not trying to copy the outline of an animal for someone to be able to recognise it, I am not trying to produce an illustration. I cannot see the point of just copying things. I am trying to produce something that will make a connection. And I hope by doing that I am making the viewer look at the image and identify with it, because that is what communication is about.
Q: For many years, you have suffered from a serious illness. What is your illness and how does it affect your work?
CS: I was told at the beginning of the year 2000 that I had a disease of the lungs which was incurable and that there was not very much they could do. In fact, I was told by Charing Cross hospital that I would be a paraplegic within 2 years. The disease is called Mycobacterium Avium-Intracellulare (MAI) and it is a form of Tuberculosis, but it is not straightforward Tuberculosis, and it is not contagious. I have it due to a congenital fault in my immune system – most people’s immune system would kick it out, but I have a problem with bacterial infection, because I do not have the right set up in my immune system.
I have multiple infection in my lungs – I have up to 15 infections that they have identified which are all drug resistant, which means I am put on drugs, and one antibiotic will put down one strain but then another strain will take advantage. But the trouble is, as you go on, there comes a point at which no known antibiotic will work anymore, and I have been on multiple different antibiotics since 2000. On top of that I have very severe Bronchiectasis, which is a disease, again which you can treat, but you cannot get rid of. It destroys the little alveoli in your lungs, so over a period of time you just lose your lungs. I have reached a point now where there is no drug that will work.
Q: You have said that working is what keeps you going…
CS: I have got so much I want to do, so much I must do, so I have to keep going. But the trouble is I cannot get about! I can only walk