Claerwen James, interviewed by the Evening Standard
28 February 2013
"I'm guessing Claerwen James takes after her mother, the academic Dante specialist Prue Shaw, rather than her father, extrovert Aussie polymath Clive James. Claerwen, 43, trained as a zoologist then as a molecular biologist specialising in programmed cell death before retraining as a painter in her thirties. Her pictures of discomfitingly unhappy children, based on photographs, sell for between £5,000 and £12,500: the novelist Ian McEwan bought one in 2006 for what her gallery calls "a healthy four-figure sum".
So far, so accomplished. But James found the opening of her latest show at the Flowers gallery on Cork Street "nerve-racking". She doesn't like to work from life, although she did accept a commission to paint Cate Blanchett and her two children. "With her it was a dream because she was wonderful, and would do everything you want," says James. "And of course, could you ask for a better subject? You really couldn't."
Rather than talk to me, Claerwen would clearly prefer to be home in Cambridge with her husband Jonathan Grove (another brainbox: a doctor of Scandinavian history) and their seven-year-old daughter Maia. Her discomfort is exacerbated by her 73-year-old father's announcement last year that he had been suffering from leukaemia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, leading to a "wilful misunderstanding" by the media "that he was at death's door". This came hard on the heels of the news that he'd separated from his wife of more than 40 years following the revelation of his eight-year affair with 48-year-old socialite Leanne Edelsten.
Obviously, I ask about him. "He's not very well but he is much better than he was last year," says Claerwen. "He's frail. But he's working, he's cheerful, and he's writing a lot of poetry, which I'm thrilled by. Two years ago he nearly died a couple of times. Now, it has been 18 months since his last [urgent] hospitalisation, though he is there for clinics. He is not as robust as one would wish but I have high hopes he will be with us for some time."
Her father used to divide his time between the family home in Cambridge and a book-stuffed warehouse flat in London, especially in the Seventies and Eighties when he was a TV personality as well as a writer and critic. (Also the years when Claerwen and her younger sister Lucinda - now a civil servant in Cambridge - were growing up.) After the split he retreated to London but now he is back in Cambridge, as he needs to be close to Addenbrooke's Hospital, as well as to his family.
Are her parents living together again or still separated? "Neither of those two things," she answers eventually. "They are back on speaking terms. I can't talk about it - it's their business." Was she angry when she learned of his affair? "I wasn't thrilled," she says drily. "For me, I guess, his illness was a very immediate concern that slightly eclipsed everything else."
They are clearly very close as a family but I suppose it can't have been easy growing up in such an intellectual hothouse. Those sad-eyed kids in Claerwen's pictures are an open goal for the amateur psychologist. But her art springs, she says, from a universal feeling of helplessness that children feel, rather than anything specific and personal: "It's the condition of being somehow mute, of not being able to articulate anything. Everything seems inevitable: this is just the way things are and you can't alter them. I didn't enjoy the state of being a child. Which is not to say I had an unhappy childhood at all."
Growing up, she says, "there was an expectation about what's interesting and valuable that you imbibe without knowing but I didn't feel it as a pressure because a lot of my interests were coincident with theirs. I was a good fit, though I suppose it could have been bad if I wasn't." When she was young, her father "was working incredibly, insanely hard. He was away a lot." Because he was such a recognisable figure, there was also a sense that he belonged to the public, not to her.
"When he was there he was very present," she continues, "but you had to capture his interest. You had to find him something he could engage with. Then he would spend eight hours building you a puppet theatre, or make you a snow lady in the garden with a full ballgown, arms, a bun. To the extent that you would retire from the freezing cold and he'd still be out there saying, 'we've got to do the ears'." Her mother, was "much more hands on. She has a forensic mind and a broad range of interests. They are a formidable pair. She can hold her own."
Claerwen enjoyed art at the "very academic" Perse School for Girls in Cambridge but was encouraged to follow her flair for science. She concedes there may have been a subconscious urge to annexe territory separate from the literary-
historical landscape her parents occupied. "I love the fact they are both terrible at maths," she says. Nevertheless, her father managed to point her to Peter Medawar's lucid, inspiring essays on science in her teens: "He did have an uncanny ability, while appearing not to be concentrating, of knowing the book you had to read at the exact right moment in your life." She studied zoology at Oxford under Richard Dawkins, then did her PHD with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.
But throughout this four-year period she harked back to art, spending every two-week holiday at a summer school at the Slade, and painting all day while writing her thesis at night. When she had finished it she abandoned science and enrolled for four years at the Slade. "I was really established [in science] and I dumped it," she says. "I look back now and think that was an odd and scary thing to have done. She married her husband - who she first dated in her teens - shortly afterwards, and they lived on very little, in Cambridge. "Art is expensive these days but painting, compared to science, is cheap," she says.
Her apprehension of the sadness of childhood makes Claerwen loath to paint her own daughter, and she is similarly wary of loading Maia with Jamesian levels of academic or artistic expectation. "She's a really extraordinarily gifted draughtsman at the moment and I am trying not to care too much about that," she says. "And she and my husband share a great interest in the Romans which he is over the moon about. But it emerged organically. We all enjoy language. In practically the first coherent sentence she managed to express, she was using the present participle in her verbs, and she said: 'The wanting, and the more, and the porridge!' Dad just thought this was poetry and he did actually use it in a broadcast. And the longing for more food is very 'him' as well."
As we conclude our chat, I recall that Clive James said recently he expected to be remembered as Claerwen's father, rather than she as his daughter. "That was very sweet of him to say, and I don't think he necessarily believes it," she says. "He has a very healthy ego."
Claerwen James's paintings are at Flowers Central, 21 Cork Street, W1, until March 16 (flowersgallery.com)."