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Friday Find: Robert James Clarke

“I’ve just done a billionaire’s Cairn Terrier,” says Robert James Clarke of his most recent commission. Currently based in New York, Clarke is the fine artist who has found his métier in portraits with a canine bent. He has a fairly fabulous following. From Kate Moss to Meatloaf, Bruce Oldfield to Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, Clarke is clearly the man to head to when you want to capture your pooch in paint.
I remember him running the ridiculously cool hangout, Dave’s Bar, at Central Saint Martins College of Art. That closed 22 years ago, after which the fine artist dabbled in advertising work and made paintings for show properties. His work – mainly birds, abstracts and still life – was taken up by several shops. “Then, one day a woman asked if I did dogs,” he recalls. Clarke went to meet her and her smooth fox terrier, Trevor. “The little bugger bit me,” he says. Turns out it was a bite worth enduring. “I did a painting of Trevor. She loved it, used it as a Christmas card and sent it out to her friends, including the gallery owner Rebecca Hossack.” He ended up painting dogs for the gallery with an international reputation and dogs fast became his thing.
Which is interesting for a man with a lifelong aversion to them. “I was attacked in the park by a large German Shepherd when I was two years old, so I was scared of dogs,” he says. But 13 years ago, when his then-girlfriend got a puppy and he joined them at puppy class, a spell of immersion therapy cured him.
“You end up handling other people’s puppies, touching their paws and stuff…” he says. “I was completely charmed.”
And dogs have since helped tighten up his style. “I had always been a bit splodgy, splashy, abstracty, and I didn’t have any focus. But now I’ve become obsessive about the tiny details involved in painting dogs,” he says. And as Clarke has come to find, when you are commissioned to paint a dog portrait, it’s not just the dog you are taking on. There’s the whole backstory to consider, too. “You can have fifteen white West Highland Terriers in a room but each will look entirely different to their owners. When I first started-up I painted a Boxer and the owner said to me, “It doesn’t look anything like my dog. Where’s his joie de vivre?” I thought, “It’s a Boxer – they don’t do joie de vivre.” But I learnt that actually, it’s not necessarily just the dog I’m painting, it’s the person’s interpretation of the personality of their dog.”
Now his work can be found at Cricket Fine Art and McAllister Thomas in the UK and Dog & Horse Fine Art & Portraiture in the States. He says thirty five per cent of his commissions are painted posthumously. “A painting can be with you forever, it’s really quite sweet,” he says. My advice? Don’t wait until your dog is an ex-dog. Clarke’s work is charming in all sorts of ways – and his prices, in keeping with the doggy dollar, are on the up.

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