Preview: Born Oldham 1953

Artist Brian Clarke tells Bernadette Hyland why his home city of Oldham continues to provide inspiration for his paintings

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Brian Clarke, award winning architectural artist, is best known for his designs in stained glass that feature in settings as diverse as the shopping centre in Oldham and the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan. He is widely regarded as the finest artist working in stained glass in the world.

His new exhibition at Gallery Oldham has brought him back to his roots as he was born in the town and grew up in a working-class family of mill workers. “I have the same relationship to Oldham as bread has to flour – made from it but look different these days.”

Born in 1953, he has seen Oldham change in many ways that are in conflict, both with his memories and his views about art and architecture. “I have a powerful and profound connection to being working class and from Oldham. But Oldham has had the heart ripped out of it. Oldham had a huge number of majestic cotton mills and a 19th century architecture that serviced that cotton industry, including a market hall that was as exciting and thrilling as an Eastern bazaar or souk.”

Clarke believes that the regeneration of Oldham has led to the destruction of its history and is detrimental to the character of the town. In his new exhibition he has tried to express his emotions about the past history of Oldham, for instance through evocative drawings of the cotton mills. “The mills were my first engagement with architecture and I never saw them as depressing places or workhouses. I saw them as closer to palaces – many of them were beautiful, exuberant and had exotic names.”

His new exhibition is only the second time that he has shown his paintings, although these fundamental to his practice as an architectural artist. Influenced by William Morris, Clarke believes in the importance of art not just as a creative force but as an indicator of the health of a nation.

“I share Morris’s belief that all art should combine in a symphonic whole to make environments work and that the dignity and nobility of man lies in his ability to make things – something I think has diminished in this country where we have only a trickle of people with these skills.”

Clarke’s love of drawing is complemented by his vibrant use of colour, a strong calligraphic identity and the use of grid structures. This shows his instinctive feel for line and the structuring of his work through the use of grids.

Clarke was educated at Oldham Art School and Burnley School of Art. Today he is a visiting professor of architecture art at University College London, an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, holds an honorary doctorate from Huddersfield and chairs of the Architecture Foundation. But he doesn’t give advice to young people studying art.

“They should follow their instincts, advice can be wrong. I cannot see art as a career or a business. To me it has to answer to a higher authority,  that asks questions about the way we think, about the established orthodoxies and the meaningfulness of life.”

Clarke is 60 this year and this exhibition is a celebration of his drawings and a reflection on his life and work, not as an end but a new chapter in his artistic life.

“Bernard Shaw said that youth was wasted on the young and I am determined that old age will not be wasted on me. I know I chose the right job and I would like to get better at it.

“The benefit of experience is that we can get more radical as we get older, less satisfied with convention, more difficult to please but definitely happier.”

Brian Clarke: Born Oldham 1953 is at Gallery Oldham until 14 Sept

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