Vespers at Phillips London

5th August 2021 to 10th September 2021

Phillips, 30 Berkeley Square, London

Phillips press release for the exhibition 'Brian Clarke: Vespers' at 30 Berkeley Square

Summer 2021 exhibition of the series of watercolours and mixed media works on paper 'Vespers' at the European headquarters of Phillips in London, in collaboration with HENI. The largest single exhibition of artworks ever displayed at auctioneer's gallery, Vespers opened to the public from August 5th, 2021, displayed over two floors of 30 Berkeley Square, Mayfair, for five weeks. As part of the collaboration between Phillips and HENI, the Vespers series was made available, in full, in a limited duration sale via the HENI Leviathan platform. This historic drop, which followed on from HENI's release of Damien Hirst's NFT 'The Currency', went live on the morning of Wednesday, September 1, and ran throughout the last week of the exhibition, ending on Friday, September 10, with all 529 works sold. The exhibition catalogue, published by HENI, is prefaced with an essay by art critic Robert Storr, former senior curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

Delayed for over a year by Covid restrictions, this exhibition’s unprecedented scale now allows Vespers, begun in 2019 and continued again through lockdown, to be seen in its full narrative arc. Over 500 works in watercolour form the centrepiece of the exhibition, in which Clarke uses the form of the poppy as the starting point for a strikingly inventive investigation into abstraction and the liquid nature of colour. Gathered together, writes Robert Storr, they make “an explosive bouquet of natural beauty at its most ephemeral, given that all truly natural things are inherently ephemeral and that beauty assumes its greatest pitch and poignancy when it has been wounded”, employing Clarke’s unmatched experience working with light to evoke the ‘huge walls of flickering colour’, the ‘harnessed euphoria’ he explores through his practice in stained glass, tapestry and ceramic. 

The later works, created at home in isolation, extend the cycle through the use of collage, incorporating surgical facemasks, newspapers, layered acrylic-painted grids and paper cut-outs. Like his earlier, signature series exploring a single emblem – the cross, the fleur de lys, the Spitfire – through Clarke’s “focused, obsessive engagement with this family of poppies” in Vespers, he turns universal symbol into instantly recognisable personal cipher, his daily investigation capturing an intimate portrait of the times. – Phillips

I’ve had a kind of sneaky romance with poppies for some time. Seeing these works together has a particular biographical resonance: when I was painting them, one memory I tried to capture was of Linda McCartney and I, in the early 80s in Sussex, buying packets of seeds and throwing handfuls out the car as we drove. The next time we’d visit poppies would have sprang up in the roadside fields: a whole hovering, horizontal explosion of colour. In the evening you’d see the sun coming through them, the petals would go transparent and it was like you imagine heaven might be. Intimately married to the experience of stained glass, in these works light passes through the thinnest layers of paint and bounces off the white paper, exploiting the nature of the medium to make them shimmer with liquid colour.” – Brian, 2021

HENI press release for Phillips exhibition 'Brian Clarke: Vespers'

“These drawings-that-are-really-paintings display Clarke’s deft command of gestural brushstroke. He is able to eke out subtle suggestions of formal flux and volume from the various transparencies and opacities of a single stroke such that a broad poppy petal conjured just by one touch of the brush seems to curve when differently diluted amounts of red pigment settle on the blank sheet of absorbent paper, creating exquisitely modulated shadows where the petal warps in or out against the flatness of the sheet.” – Robert Storr

I never expected, really, to be a flower painter, but over the last few years I’ve increasingly taken pleasure in looking at the way flowers behave. These new works are very much about the nature of paint. On the surface of it, they’re paintings of poppies, but they’re a bit more urgent than poppies are generally. Aggressive, some of them – I wouldn’t want to spend the night with some, but others I’ve fallen in love with. When I’m making these works, new worlds, constellations, start occurring between them. Vespers comes from the Greek 'hespera', meaning evening: they are evening prayers. A ‘poppy’ can be playful or convey remembrance, but some of these aren't playful – and some are not poppies at all, but they are all born out of an idea I have about what poppies do. A ‘vesper’ can be a prayer of joy, it can be exuberant, it can be defeated, it can be ignored, and it’s all being expressed through these. And art may not be on the face of it as important as the issues of the day, but they’re like a wish: me trying to do something that is beneficial to an abstract world, a bigger thing than me. They are me putting down the best of myself to share and they feel, when I make them, choreographing some story across the sheet, like little prayers – as near as, you know, a post-Darwinian Realist can get to saying a prayer.” – Brian

“Brian Clarke has been a visionary and forerunner of contemporary stained glass art since the 70s, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming both new and long-standing admirers of his work to our gallery at Berkeley Square. We have never before displayed so many works of art in a single exhibition, and this celebrated series will transform the space. Flooded with natural light, the poppies will be brought to life to create a vast field of colour.”  Cheyenne Westphal, Global Chairwoman, Phillips