A talent as clear as day

Reporter: Martyn Torr
Date published: 17 September 2013

MARTYN MEETS... internationally-renowned Oldham artist Brian Clarke

SELDOM in my life have I been privileged to spend quality time with a genius. So I consider myself fortunate to have spent two and a half hours with a truly gifted artist.

And guess what? We went to same school, right here in Oldham! What’s more, we both failed our 11 plus too!

Brian Clarke, the world’s foremost designer and creator of modern stained art glass, is an old boy of Clarksfield secondary school.

We weren’t there at the same time — at 60, he’s five years younger than me. But we have shared memories of outstanding teachers, even though Brian spent only 12 months there before his raw creative talent saw him whisked off to Oldham College of Art.

We met at his cavernous and inspiring studio in North Acton, London. He had just returned from five weeks touring Spain, having based himself in the stunning city of Seville to study Gothic architecture.

He is planning another five-week trip soon, this time along the highways and byways of Britain, to get a feel for the industrial heritage of the country he loves. His home town will of course get special attention. He remains deeply proud of his heritage and of Oldham.

“Wherever I am in the world — and I do get about a bit — I always write ‘Oldham’ in the entry visa box that asks the question ‘Where are you from?’. Always, every time, Oldham. I am proud to come from Oldham.”

‘Getting about a bit’ is something of a misnomer. Brian has been everywhere, probably twice. He has homes in New York, Rome and Germany to name a few - as well as Peel Cottage in Notting Hill, a few stops down the London Underground Central Line from his studio, an admin hub for the business that is his career in art, a transit warehouse for the works he ships around the globe.

And did I say cottage? This is a vast stone building once owned by a retired bigwig from the Indian army, who converted the original artist’s studio into a ballroom. How many cottages do you know that have ballrooms...?

This area is his creative working space at home - on the few occasions he is actually “at home” or even England.

So I was fortunate that he offered to spend almost three hours in the company of a guy from the Chron. This guy’s time is precious, his gifts prodigious.

Brian is in demand all around the world and he is, first, foremost and last, a working artist, a relentless, driving, juggernaut of creative juices. This is a guy with so much energy it’s a wonder he can sleep.

Brian is solely responsible for the three largest pieces of stained-glass art in the world.

But stained glass — and check out the ceiling of Spindles Town Square shopping centre for a prime example of his work — is only one of the mediums in which he excels.

He recently turned his talent to sculpture, creating several bronze abstracts which on the day I was there had just returned from an exhibition in New York.

Brian’s talent first showed all those years ago at his parents’ home in Limeside. He went to Limeside Primary School, as did his two brothers — John, who resident in France, and Barry, who lives in Norway with his Norwegian wife.

Barry is a photographer - and Brian admits being in awe of him: “Anyone who can learn the Norwegian language, well, it’s bewildering, with no basis in any of the modern languages we know. This from a family that used to be posh if we used a word with more than three syllables!”

All three boys were supported by their parents, father Edward, a miner and millworker, and mother Lillian.

Brian was always drawing, sketching and doodling as a child, but his gifts only came to the fore after he attended Clarksfield school.

“I was there for only 12 months and this bloke came to see mum and dad about my sitting the entrance exam for the art school.

“I remember a bunch of us were sat down in front of a plate of chips — they weren’t real chips, more of a sculpture — and we had to draw our own picture.” And that was that. He was soon at the Lyceum, but when his father took a job in Burnley the whole family upped sticks and moved to east Lancashire. Brian enrolled in Burnley Art School, where he continued to develop. On leaving he took the only job he has ever had — as a silk-screen printer in Preston, for £12 a week.

“It was a good job and I enjoyed it. We used to make motorway and road signs for the Department of Transport.

“One day, I had been there about three months, that’s all, I did a direction sign in red, instead of blue, as a joke. The owner went mad and I remember he threw some aluminium signs at me. Then he sacked me.”

Thus ended Brian’s first career. But Burnley was where his enduring love affair with stained glass began.

He was seeing a girl named Liz - later to become his first wife - who was the daughter of the vicar of a local church. The Rev John Finch, now 97 and to this day a good friend of his former son in law, was commissioning some new stained-glass windows for the church.

“I was fascinated by the project, the techniques and the artistry,” said Brian. “There was something magical about the material.”

He and Liz spent three years at an art college in Bideford, North Devon, before moving to their first family home in Matlock, Derbyshire.

He has never returned to Oldham, but the town retains his loyalty and he undoubtedly sees Oldham as home. His aunt Mary Whitehead, on his mother’s side, still lives in Chadderton.

“My memories of Oldham are profound and will never leave,” he said, sipping his coffee.

We sat in leather armchairs in front of a huge, ancient wooden coffee table which he tapped affectionately.

“I paid a bloody fortune to have this shipped from Rajastan and three weeks later discovered you could buy one on virtually any corner in London.” He laughed, uproariously, at his own expense.

I spotted a glass worked image of Muhammed Ali: “Oh yes that,” he said and took me into a library that contained dozens of books about his work.

He thumbed through several and eventually found what he was seeking; it took a while, since there were so many, depicting his works in all their forms. All created by this lad from Limeside.

Then there it was: a magnificent stained-glass wall — the entire wall — of Muhammed Ali, in the great champion’s own centre in Louisville, Kentucky — designed, created and installed by Brian. All in stained glass. He closed the book and moved on...

To say I was in awe of this guy is an understatement. I was immersed by so much of the man’s life I almost bottled out of writing this for fear of not doing him justice.

We walked on and talked about his commitments; the things that take him away from doing what he loves.

In fact he is about to resign from all his peripheral activities to allow his work to devour him again. He wants to create more art, in many forms.

I couldn’t help but wonder at the relentless, unnerving energy, but a thought crossed my mind. He has achieved so much, created so much and yet at 60 wants to do even more. And more.

Is he, heaven forbid, becoming aware of his own mortality...?

The answer can be found in part two, next week...