“The love of all things was upon me, and a softness to them all, and a sense of having something even such as they had.”
― R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone
On their third birthday Clare’s twin sister was given a set of handkerchiefs embroidered with the days of the week, whereas she was given a paint box: so it was recognised from those early times that painting would be her passion. Her Mother still lives in Taunton, close to Exmoor where Clare was brought up: it is the landscape of RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone (Doone Valley is around five miles from Lynton). The Exmoor landscape features in many of her paintings. “I knew I had an attachment to the shapes, feelings and colours of Exmoor. Painting is the vehicle for that attachment.”
At the age of eight, she determined that she was going to live in a house with “grass right up to the front door.” Her dream came true: she now lives in a secluded cottage on the edge of the Cranborne Chase. At the bottom of the garden is Clare’s studio – her busy, cosy and inviting moss-green ‘Shed’, where cream muslin curtains drape the doorway and her grandmother’s threadbare sofa sits waiting. When her husband suggested they try for a third child, Clare said it was on the condition that she could have her own studio and spend eight hours every weekend there! This was described by John Peel in a BBC Radio Interview with her as her ‘Faustian Pact’ – whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance for some worldly or material benefit. Her teacher husband has been true to his word and has always shared in the rearing of their three children and all the household tasks, which enables her to have time to paint.
Clare studied at the Slade School of Fine Art where she was the Slade Prizewinner for her graduating year. On undertaking a PGCE at Exeter she met her husband and then moved to Blandford. However, “The four years at the Slade was misplaced for me. Despite the accolades, I didn’t know what I wanted. It has taken me the next forty five years to get to grips with what I want.” And that is Exmoor, which still remains her muse: “We don’t live there but restraint seems to be the key. When we are there I draw and draw and draw: my sketches and notebooks are filled with memories. It’s such a distinct landscape – I’m interested in the near relating to the far, and I will often use birds to depict this as in Listening to Larks above Simonsbath and Kestrel on a Headwind above The Barle. I love the process of using the paint and moving it around until I get the feeling I am looking for.”
In her early twenties Clare lived in Israel for a year, learned Hebrew and worked in a kibbutz. Later, in 2000, there were charity cycle rides through Israel and into Jordan: Bike Tracks through the Sand is one of the results. She fell in love with the country (I Stood on That Rock and Saw Myself) and made further regular visits, often taking one or other of her children. She made many Jordanian friends, making it possible to learn about the conflict in the Middle East at first hand. A monumental painting entitled Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, with modern echoes of The Last Supper was her response to the political situation of the time, the feeling that there was a lack of understanding in the West. The title refers to the thousand mile long crude oil pipeline which runs from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. Built to diversify the global oil supply, it has caused conflict between the United States and ex-Soviet allies who sought to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region. Clare is pleased that the painting was purchased by the National University of Ireland in Galway for their Political Science Faculty: it now hangs on the wall there.
With both their sons now living abroad, one in Japan and one in Hong Kong, Clare has also enjoyed visiting, exploring and painting those varied landscapes. “You don’t know a country until you see the countryside, so we always hire bicycles to explore.” Fragmenting the Waterhole, Carp Pool, Kyoto and Sai Kung, Hong Kong are some of the wonderful images from these travels. However, now the strong dynamics of travel, politics and religion no longer invade her work; she has left behind worries of the outside world to concentrate on images of her beloved Exmoor – and her teaching.
Under normal conditions, Clare runs several classes in Blandford with numerous students who have been with her for many years. During lockdown, online sessions have been offered but the one-to-one contact is lacking. “I love my teaching and I’m missing the buzz of the classroom. Online classes are not the same without the interactive contact. When I am in a class I can very quickly go up to a student, immediately see what they are trying to do and how I can help them achieve that result. I have faith that all my students have something in them and I have expectations that they will find it. It has nothing to do with whether their painting is good or not, it is entirely about the process of just doing it. When my students come to me, they all worry about what the final viewer will think about their work. But I tell them to forget about that until the final presentation. Many classes can equip you with a technique to paint in a certain way but I don’t do that. We look at things and determine how to respond; I will provide ideas of what medium could be used but it is entirely the student’s choice and their response to what they are looking at. A further step is when you become expressive. It is good to be expressive but I like clarity as well. A combination of clarity and expression.”
Students’ work is published on Clare’s art class website and contact details can be found here for those interested: https://clareshep.wixsite.com/weeklyartclass. When we finally emerge from lockdown Clare was due to exhibit in London this coming May but she’s not sure if that will take place. An exhibition on Exmoor in September has now been delayed for a year, which she is happy about because it provides more time to portray her beloved Exmoor landscape before the exhibition.