Coming Home: Paintings by Carey Clarke

Coming Home: Paintings by Carey Clarke

August 20, 2023 Off By Conor Walton

My great friend and former teacher Carey Clarke invited me to write the introduction to his exhibition of paintings at the Glebe Gallery in County Donegal which opened on August 20th 2023. Here is what I wrote, with some pictures from the exhibition.

‘Coming Home’ is the title of this exhibition, Carey Clarke’s first in his native Donegal. Still painting energetically at eighty-six years of age, with a lifetime career and catalogue of achievements (exhibitions, prizes, important official portraits, works in national collections, decades of teaching at the National College of Art and a leading role in the Royal Hibernian Academy) Carey Clarke is, at this point, the Grand Old Man of Irish art. 


An exhibition of Carey’s work in Donegal, acknowledging the place his homeland has in his heart and it’s importance in his personal development is long overdue. Carey’s life and career has revolved around Dublin since he was sent to boarding school in 1945, at the age of nine. But through his miserable school years and beyond, his heart remained in Donegal. It remains his spiritual home. Like some spiritual travellers, emigrants and exiles, Carey invokes the German word ‘heimat’ to describe his feelings about the land of his youth. Roughly translating as ‘homeland’, it invokes an idea of the only place a person can feel fully at home, because only there can memory, community and a sense of continuity coincide to generate the deepest feelings of belonging, security and trust.

At the center of this exhibition are several magnificent Donegal landscapes (some just finished) celebrating its natural beauty through all the seasons. Erigal’s iconic profile in both Summer and Winter stands out among them.

Portraits of himself and family extend the theme of intimacy and personal connection: a fine painting of his mother (which the artist rightly believes could hang in the best company) and of Hilda, his beloved wife and inseparable companion of six decades. Carey’s portraits are classic in every sense. Their design is always clear, graceful and apparently effortless. Clean lines catch slight quirks of body language, subtly conveying attitude and personality. These draw the viewer to the face, which is always as delicate, humane and empathically observant as you could wish for in a painted portrait. Carey responds with sensitivity, care and natural warmth to the humanity of his sitters and reveals his own rich and solid humanity in the process. 

‘Portrait of My Mother’ by Carey Clarke, oil on canvas, 1982- 1986

“I have to see it!”

As a painter Carey is a committed realist. While he often modifies his subjects subtly for greater pictorial effect, he has never worked principally from imagination. Concept-driven images (such as his self-portrait ‘On Reflection’) are also rare in his oeuvre. The starting point and inspiration for Carey’s paintings is almost always something authentically witnessed. As he says himself, “I have to see the thing.” But once seen, the breadth and speed of Carey’s visual intelligence allows him to immediately plot and plan the picture right to its end. Actually completing the picture may take years, but no matter how long it takes, Carey will never lose hold of the original immediate impression, the vision that captivated him and impelled him into paint.

‘Tobacco Barn with Cart’ by Carey Clarke, tempera grassa on panel, 1983

‘Tobacco Barn with Cart’ exemplifies his process. On a painting holiday in the south of France he discovered an empty tobacco barn; a slatted, breezy structure where the crop is typically hung to dry. Carey’s immediate reaction on entering was “Wow!” His instantaneous delight in the complex play of light and shade through the network of wooden slats, creating myriad stripes of sunlight and warm shadow, amounted to a visual epiphany. He immediately conjured the painting in his head, knowing exactly how he would execute it and what it would look like. 

Let There Be Light

Most of Carey’s paintings record an epiphany of this sort: an authentically witnessed vision stops him in his tracks and (so to speak) commands him to faithfully celebrate it. He represents his own moments of visual ecstacy. His greatest delight (and achievement) is in virtuoso painterly transcriptions of the most complex interplay of light and matter, such as beams of sunlight entering a space, dramatically hitting objects, bouncing off or passing through to create first a dramatic pattern, then a symphonic array of delicately coloured reflections. They are – literally – transient moments of stillness and illumination. He is a master of chiaroscuro, but is naturally drawn more toward light than shadow, towards clarity more than obscurity. His temperament and aesthetic is brilliant and joyful, not dark or moody. Order and structural intelligibility are of paramount importance in his compositions. In musical terms his style is Classical, not Romantic: he aligns with Mozart more than Schubert.

Where he remains Romantic in the spiritual sense is in his absolute love of nature and humanity and his conviction that their faithful representation is sufficient to make art. For Carey, observing and recording a scene means connecting with existence in the most fundamental way, reaffirming the primacy and inexhaustibility of physical beauty. Even when painting a bare modern interior (as in ‘Mondrianesque’) it is not the walls or empty space that really interests Carey, but sunlight entering and transforming so that it seems not empty at all, but absolutely full: saturated by light experienced ecstatically as an almost divine presence.

‘Mondrianesque’ by Carey Clarke, oil on canvas, 2016

Because this exhibition is both an artistic homecoming and possibly the last of his professional career, it represents an event of immense significance for him as well as of some poignancy. He is a proud Donegal man, happy at long last to have the opportunity to show his art here. I hope Donegal celebrates the event, takes this returning son to heart, and holds him there.

– Conor Walton, August 2023

‘Coming Home: A Selection of Paintings by Carey Clarke’ is at the Glebe Gallery, Churchill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal from August 20 to October 31 2023.

Carey Clarke in his studio, Foxrock, Co. Dublin, August 2023.

Brief biography and critical appreciation

Born in Donegal Town in 1936 as the only child of Protestant, middle-class parents, Carey Clarke grew up near Lifford, Co Donegal. From 1945 he attended school in Dublin at Morgan School and later St Andrew’s College. From 1954 to 1959 he studied painting at The National College of Art, with further studies at the Salzburg Summer school of Fine Art under Emilio Vedova (1969), with Annigoni in Florence (1976–77) and at Slade School in London (1991).

He taught at the National College of Art and Design from 1959 to 1995, where his emphasis on painterly craft and observation had a profound influence on several generations of younger painters. 

An associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1967, Clarke was elected full member in 1981 and served as President of that institution from 1992 – 1996.

Principally a painter of landscapes, interiors and still lifes, Carey Clarke is also regarded as one of Ireland’s finest portraitists and has painted many leading politicians, academics, artists and other well-known Irish figures, among them former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, former Lord Mayor of Dublin Michael Mulcahy and playwright Tom Murphy.

‘Portrait of the Artist’ by Carey Clarke (close-up) oil on canvas, 1997

Artist James Hanley has written of his “remarkable body of work that is of the best of the European classical tradition, in portraiture, still life, landscape and interiors, and Irish in his commitment to the landscape of his native place – making him the continuum, of Osborne, Orpen and Keating, Hennessy and McGonigal.” 

Artist Mick O’Dea agrees: “Carey Clarke follows his vision, and he will have a corpus of work that will transcend any decade, particularly as part of the continuity of that Orpen tradition, which was so derided even when I was at college … I think there is a line going back to Ingres, from Orpen to Keating to Clarke, and on to the present generation such as myself.”

Irish Times critic Aidan Dunne described Clarke as “one of the most popular and respected of Ireland’s established academic artists, and deservedly so.” Brian Sewell described him as “among the keepers of the academic faith.” Bruce Arnold declared him “a master of his craft and art, revered as a teacher, admired as a painter and loved as a friend.”

Carey Clarke’s palette