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Dead Man Talking: Clare Shenstone on Bowie, Bacon and Beatles

A prolific London-based model turned artist, Clare Shenstone was only 16 when she posed naked for the poster of Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol’s 1966 experimental movie. In 1971 she played Ophelia opposite Sir Ian McKellen in Hamlet, albeit for a single performance, as understudy. 

Despite her many talents, art was the one thing that was there from the start: she recalls drawing and painting since she was a child. Animals, people and trees were, and still are, her favourite subjects. The people portrayed in her work seem to come to life in an uncommon balance between canvas and colour. 

While she was studying at the Royal College of Art, Francis Bacon saw her works and bought one of them. They soon struck up a close friendship, and Bacon commissioned her to create a cloth head portrait of himself, and later Clare produced a series of studies of him. Yet, this is but one part of the story; the other another ‘B’ — that strange man called Bowie. 

Clare was a witness (with the impromptu Peggy Burns) at the wedding of David Bowie and Angela Barnett in 1970, and had known both David Jones the young man and David Bowie the artist.

Some of Clare’s paintings are kept in museums such as the National Portrait Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre, but as a small but significant part of his life, she is herself the custodian of some of Bowie’s secrets. I met her only once, at a gallery show in Cork Street, in the nineties, hosted by Kate Chertavian, DB’s art agent at the time.

The “girl with the heart-shaped face” was fascinating if slightly guarded company, but as soon as she revealed that she was still “good friends” with David but not Angie I got the distinct impression approaching her for a formal on-the-record interview would be a waste of time. That button-lipped vibe was pretty much confirmed when Dylan Jones wrote in the acknowledgments of his entertaining if weirdly fragmented oral history David Bowie: A Life (Preface Publishing, 2017)

“Thank you also to the lovely Clare Shenstone (the inspiration of ‘Heroes’, and whose dream about swimming with dolphins is so central to the song), whom I spoke to at length about her connection with David and the peripatetic nature of their relationship; in the end she decided she didn’t want her story told, however our own connection more than compensated for my initial disappointment at this.”

So it is something of a scoop that the first (of almost 40) and leading interview in another “on Bowie” book, newly authored by Matteo Tonolli is none other than Clare herself. Happily, the impeccably researched book presents each interview — including illuminating conversions with Kevin Armstrong, Edward Bell, Candy Clark, Greg Gorman and Sukita — as self-contained chapters, so there’s none of that slightly forced narrative you get with the Jones tome.

A Milan-based writer, Looking For Bowie is currently only published in Tonolli’s native Italian so, on the eighth anniversary of The Dame’s death, is delighted to be able to present to you something of an exclusive — a brand new 2024 adaption in English. Take it away Matteo…

Talking about your work… is it affected by Francis Bacon’s influence? What do you feel you learned from him?

Many painters’ work influenced me, but also Egyptian art and primitive art and much of life. However, before Francis saw my work, I had written my masters thesis on Portrait of George Dyer Crouching. I admired his work enormously.. and yes, it certainly influenced me. His defiant courage to express himself as he wished, his total uniqueness and expression of life as it is, alone in a room. His use of paint whereby the paint becomes the image and yet is never denied its identity as simply being paint. The paint is alive with energy and the image is fixed within it.

My style didn’t change – Francis wanted my work, not a copy of his! Whether my subject is a human person or an animal, I’m not painting their likeness, which I see as a mask, I am painting their feelings, emotions and what it is under their mask. To me there is no difference between humans and animals. Each individual is a unique being and we all only have one gift of life.

Bacon seems to have shown you a fragility that did not appear in his paintings. On a personal level, do you think he gave you some important lessons?

What I learned from Francis was the courage to go my own way. To believe in myself and do battle in order to realise my own vision. But you must also bear and overcome your constant insecurity that you’re not good enough. All great artists have this ying-yang battle – total courage and commitment to their work and of its quality, knowing it is uniquely their own. The first time I spoke to Francis, which was on the telephone, he told me he had seen my work on display at my degree show and asked to buy a head called Janet. I told him that I could not think of anyone that I would rather have it, as I considered him to be easily the greatest painter alive in the world today. He just remarked, “Well, great minds think alike, don’t they?”.

There was I, a student not even graduated yet, and here was Francis Bacon treating me with great respect as a fellow painter, and this attitude remained all through the four years we worked together. Francis would ring me and ask my opinion on various materials or methods or mediums and what I thought of this or that painters work or a single painting. He always treated me as an absolute equal. At the first sitting at his studio, I was staggered by how close to the surface his emotions were to the point where his eyes filled with tears. Interestingly, that moment is the oil sketch that David and Iman purchased. 

However, before you knew it his expression would harden and make shivers go down your spine. This created a huge tension in the atmosphere which I think he rather enjoyed. Everyone, even close friends, were always on edge in his presence because he was so unpredictable. He lived only in the present moment so you had no idea what he may do or be like in the next second. Also it was absolutely real and natural, no game, no manipulation, just a razor edge of panic hanging over the conversation. I found this created the need to be totally straightforward and honest, which was how I was anyway. 

I remember Francis rang me up one morning and said, “Some American painter rang me a few minutes ago. He said he had just arrived in London, was a huge admirer of my work and could he call by my studio.” I asked who it was and listed a few names — Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Rauchenberg? He said “I can’t remember.” I asked what happened and Francis said he’d shouted down the phone ”No!” and hung up. I countered with “Well, Francis one or two American painters have done some interesting things.” And he just replied “I’m not waisting my time with makers of wallpaper!” I was left with an image of De Kooning or Rothko staring at their phone speechless!

Before you even knew Bacon, you also had the opportunity to be involved with work by Andy Warhol.

I didn’t work with or ever meet Warhol. I was called by Alan Aldridge and he asked me if I would be the image on his poster for the UK release of Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls. He told me he wanted to make me into the Chelsea Hotel. I went down to his studio and we talked about it. Donald Silverstein was the photographer. My personal story and Alan’s personal story of making the poster is recorded in Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes, a book on Alan’s work published by Thames & Hudson. All I know is there is a quote of Warhol’s comment on seeing the poster “If only the film was as good as the poster!”.

When and why did you get to know David Bowie?

My brother Simon was in the queue at the bank and got into conversation with a young man called Calvin Lee. Simon was staying with me at that time, and ended up inviting him to my flat because Calvin wanted to meet me. 

Calvin wanted to introduce me to David so he took me to a performance at Beckenham College one lunchtime where David was playing guitar and singing his own songs. It was in a not very big wooden floored classroom and just a few students were there. David sang his heart out and was accomplished and natural. He was obviously very talented. He invited me to go back to his house for a cup of tea and I met Terry, David’s half brother, and Margaret (aka Peggy Burns), his mum.

Then David’s father died quite suddenly and David asked me to come back to the house after the funeral. He took my hand and guided me up to his room where we sat on his bed and talked. He told me he’d been in love with a girl called Hermione who was a beautiful ballet dancer and she’d been offered an amazing job in New York and had left him for her career.

I don’t think he gave me quite accurate details now but this had happened only a week or so before so he was in a very depressed state [actually Hermione Farthingale left David some months before – Ed.]. His father dying on top of that was hard to take and I tried to gently talk him through to his music and ambitions and to what really mattered to him now. I’m not sure whether he had met Angie or not by then. I remember he told me about her at some point and I think I met her two or three times at his house. The evening of John Jones’ funeral was the time I first got to know David.

You both chose to relegate your passion for the theatre to something complementary; and whereas you became a professional painter for David painting remained a hobby.

David and I both loved the theatre and it was the way I chose to earn a living because I did not see how anyone could make money out of painting. To me my painting was a very private activity. I called it my research because I was learning from it. I didn‘t paint pictures as things to sell, as products. I drew and painted to understand the world I lived in and learn more about ways to communicate my experience of being alive.

I had trained in voice production, acting, speaking of verse and prose and drama from the age of six when I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school. The theatre I was working in was classical – Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and so on. But the problem with working as an actor is that theatre is an event and that event is different every performance and takes time to unfold. It’s a collaboration of many people.

The actor doesn‘t choose which part he or she will play, the director decides that. The actors are not necessarily playing the part they would want to be playing and some of them do not like each other but they are all stuck getting on with it. It requires everyone to work together unselfishly for the perfect performance and that does not happen often. 

Both David in his work and I in mine have needed to be in control of everything. In my case it is the ultimate solitary activity and I am solely responsible for the result. David was always about his music and he was a performer. The whole event would just not happen if he wasn’t there. For instance, an understudy could not go on for him instead! His theatre was not to interpret a play, his theatre was himself.

What were your impressions of Terry Burns, David’s half-brother?

Terry was quite withdrawn and did not push himself forward. He was very sweet and the first time I met him I just thought he was a bit shy. I didn’t realise he had any problem at all. Once I had been there a few times he was joining in the conversation more. The thing that staggered me was how different they were to each other, both physically and in every other way.

What is your opinion of David as a painter?

My favourite of David’s pantings – from those I have seen – is Child in Berlin, because it’s the stairs to the flat in Berlin. It may be that the little boy is Duncan but equally the boy could be David. I really love it. However, I would never try to judge his paintings professionally. He would not ever let me see any of his paintings. In a letter he sent me between visits to Berlin he wrote that he had painted “six canvas monuments” which is what he seemed to call his paintings at that time. David’s art was what he did because he liked painting and his art was another insight into his mind.

David admitted he was inspired by Bacon, not only in pictorial style, but also in photographic shots (Frank W. Ockenfels’ 2003 portrait of Bowie on the throne reminds me of Bacon’s Pope). Do you think the bond is visible? There’s probably a visual influence also in the Bowie video for Dead Man Walking, in 1997.

It is very strange that… on one of my visits to Berlin I asked David if he knew of Frances Bacon’s work. I was very surprised when he said he didn’t know it at all. Maybe he was lying, who knows? I suggested that he have a look at it. In Dead Man Walking there is a thin box image behind him, and Bacon did use that image in his Pope paintings. In the case of Francis he is trapping the image on the canvas by caging it. As well as being a pictorial device this is also a symbolic way of referring to the Pope’s unique position. He is trapped as Pope in the Vatican but he is protected as well. Frances took that idea from photographs of the trials of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1951 and he used it again and again. The pieces of meat are also there in David’s video and both of these could be a gesture of tribute to Bacon.

Equally they could be a tribute to Damien Hirst, who David admired and became friends with. Damien used to exhibit many of his three dimensional ideas in perspex boxes and of course often used meat as well. David could even have used the ideas from the same sources as Bacon, i.e. photos from the Eichmann trial and the images of meat by Rembrandt. I think it would be fair to say that there are very few artists in many different fields who have not been influenced by Bacon’s work.

In the Outside EPK from 1995, David affirmed that it’s not possible to come to an end of a painting, but you can reach at one point when you have to stop, and a great artist knows when he has to stop. Looking at your paintings it seems you have completely reached that delicate equilibrium: pictures not formally finished, but artistically complete.

I find that there are two main ways of knowing when the process of painting must stop. Firstly when the next two marks you place on the canvas are destructive. More work on the painting will destroy it. I call that overworking the painting or polishing the apples. This makes the painting die like suffocating it. The other way is when you stand back to look at the painting and you are surprised by it and recognise it at the same time. Like giving birth you see this being that has a life of its own and you cannot believe that you made it. All you can do is look and think, how did I do that? 

The shortest time I have painted a finished oil in is just over one hour. The longest time I have spent working on a painting is seven years. I am not sure I agree with David, that it’s not possible to come to the end because a painting is a physical object with a limited surface area. There are practical reasons why you must come to the end, otherwise it will, at some point, not be a painting but a sculpture. As the paint builds up it will go from 2D to 3D. I work in series because I find one painting stimulates the need to develop the first into another and then another and one painting is a development of the one before.

There’s a quite famous picture of you with David in Berlin, dating back to the autumn of 1976, with Coco Schwab and Romy Haag.

I remember the occasion very well. David rang me in London and said he had been ill and very low and he wondered whether I would come to Berlin. I think Coco came on the phone as well and told me he really needed me to come and see him. At that time I had just started at the Royal College of Art and was also with the Royal Shakespeare Company performing a Chekhov play [Ivanov with Bowie‘s future co-star in Baal Zoë Wanamaker – Ed.] at the Aldwych Theatre at night. I would cycle to the RCA every morning, and work all day, then jump on my bike to rush off to the theatre. It was somewhat demanding on one’s time! However, the play was in repertoire with another production which I was not in, so I went to Berlin the next day. 

David was waiting for me and drove me back to the flat. He told me about his troubles and how it had affected him. Then he played me Low and he talked about Kraftwerk and Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. Jim [Iggy] was staying at the flat too, and David said “let’s go out”, so Coco, David and I went to a gay club and it turned out that it was all planned. They had closed the club to the public and were putting on a cabaret just for us – well, really for David.

They were wonderful and kind and kept hugging me. There were three transvestites and they performed just for us, singing and dancing… and they were very very professional. One of them, asked if before we left, could they have a photograph of us all. So that is the story of that photo. Quite a while after that David told me one of them had committed suicide [as Mark Paytress and I mentioned in the BowieStyle book, that was Viola Scotty, who appeared in Just A Gigolo with DB – Ed.]

You’ve lived in an era of great cultural ferment, but you also got to know exciting people and extraordinary artists Is there any particular anecdote that impressed you?

As Paul Simon sings “born at the right time”. I arrived in London about early 1967 and I was far too young. It was the height of the psychedelic flower power movement: Carnaby Street, Kings Road, Biba, Beatles, Stones, Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, David Bailey, Twiggy… and colour everywhere. If you were there, you met famous and talented people all the time. But it was also a time of exploitation and drugs and a lot of extremely nasty people. So if you were female, young and pretty you had to keep your head firmly on your shoulders!

One time David said to me: “I want to take you to see Brian Eno.” So we went to his house. Brian was lovely, telling us about having just come back from Africa, listening to the sounds and music. Then David asked Brian if he would mind if he showed me around his house. This was typical David, he wanted to snoop around and find any interesting things. Anyway, he took me upstairs and into the bathroom. David was drawn to a lovely bowl of fruit sitting on the edge of the bath. He grabbed an apple and bit hard into it. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked. “It’s made of wax!”. All I can remember is David madly trying to rearrange the fruit so you could not see the toothmarks on the apple. Of course, if only David had owned up to it, Brian could’ve sold the apple for a fortune!

My favourite one is the day that The Beatles were collecting their MBEs at Buckingham Palace. Patti and George Harrison came round afterwards to my friend’s flat. George was always my favourite Beatle! Before they had sat down, he started to rummage about in his pockets and pulled out a parcel of something wrapped in tin foil. He carefully opened it up and offered me what turned out to be jam sandwiches, somewhat squashed. Patti said to George “Whatever have you got that in your pocket for?” and he answered, “I thought I may get hungry before the ceremony ended.”

When you knew Bowie, you also became a friend of his first wife, Angela Barnett. Did you keep in touch with her? What idea did you have of them as a couple at the time?

I believe I met Angie two or three times at David’s house but the first time I really remember her was when they both knocked on my door early one evening and told me they were going to get married in the morning. They asked if they could stay the night at my place and then would I go with them to the registry office to be a witness at their wedding. So I said “Of course!” and asked them in. Angie claims there was a night of orgy between the three of us. All I can say is we ended up going to bed early and as there was only one bed we all climbed into it. If any kind of orgy took place, I must have been asleep! 

We went off in the morning and I bought Angie some flowers. We met David’s mum Margaret there, who was the other witness. After the ceremony David and Angie rushed off and I went back home. Angie was quite a character and defiantly not someone you would describe as shy and retiring. I liked her very much and we got on well.

As a couple they were not all lovey dovey, it was more of a partnership that was mutually beneficial. At that time David had begun to develop his career and needed someone to help him and organise behind the scenes. Angie was perfect. She took him on and was very much the image maker. She suggested he should dye his hair orange and wear makeup. I suspect she contributed to the making of his earlier transformations more than anyone. She was just what David needed and they were obviously very fond of each other at the very least.

Later on they invited me to a roast dinner at Southend Road. Angie had cooked it all and Zowie (Duncan) was still a little baby. Angie was behaving in a very over the top way, which became a bit unbearable after a while. After the meal I asked David if she was behaving like this a lot and if so, how does he cope with it? He said that she had worked so hard to prepare all the food and gone through Zowie’s birth and just shrugged his shoulders with his head on one side. Then after a performance at The Rainbow, which was the Lindsay Kemp collaboration show. Angie was trying to persuade me to go with them on the tour, but that was not going to happen. 

Quite a while later I was doing my BA at Chelsea School of Art and was cycling down the King’s Road on my way home. Suddenly a giant Cadillac convertible appeared behind me and Angie was standing up on the back seat shouting at me. She said they were staying at the Hyde Park Hotel and to come and see them, and that David would love to see me. So I did. I must admit Angie seemed really pleased to see me but she was prancing around the room like a puppy with fleas. She then disappeared into another room. 

Then David appeared and asked me to come to his concert at Wembley which was the Station To Station tour. After the concert he came off the stage and went into a white van. Before he jumped in the open back doors he turned around, looked directly towards me and waved. I waved back, then he jumped in and the van disappeared. Then Angie and I got into a Rolls Royce and as it tried to move out the fans started banging on the windows and trying to climb onto the car. It was terrifying.

Obviously we were the decoys so David could escape in the back of the van. I was not amused, but at least Angie was there too. When we arrived at the flat they were staying in we went into a very large furnished room full of people waiting for David. After a while, David suddenly appeared. I was one end of the room and David came through the door, turned and walked to the other end of the room, and looked at me smiling and just waved again. It was extraordinary because it was as if there was nobody in the room except us, and he walked towards me, we hugged and then sat either side of the table and talked. I don’t know where Angie went.

You portrayed both David and Iman. What were the circumstances?

I told David that I would love to paint Iman, so after she said that she would like to do that we had the first sitting in London. She was so funny, any excuses for a giggle. We had most of the day and it was a pleasure. Then we had a second sitting and she came here to my studio. I worked on her portrait for quite a while and still have many drawings of her. They had an oil and, I think, two very large sketches.

Despite a chronic illness you’ve battled for years, art seems to invigorate your will and still feeds your passion. What are you painting at the moment?

I’m working with antique dolls and all sorts of old and damaged small figures of both humans and animals that were dug up from the rubble after the Second World War. They are strange, disturbing images and remind me of the terrible pictures that are shown of the wars going on now. Dolls with cracked or broken heads and missing arms or legs, I’m not describing anymore as I have to get oil with it and I don’t know how long I’ve got.

Bowie and Blackstar — it seems that David faced the death with his unique sensibility and created an incredible work of art: to be very close to a new transformation and still keep on, produce art again and again.

This is very raw territory for me right now for obvious reasons. I believe that artists have a ‘life force’ that makes them want, or even need, to express themselves. The stronger this energy/need the more intense is the drive to create more and communicate what they are experiencing. For a real artist this is a need, even an obsession, that is a conformation that you exist as a person and you want to leave your message to the world. I believe for some stubborn, dedicated people they can even defy death until they have completed the task they have set themselves. 

Look at the extraordinary physical feats, marathons and money raising journeys that people with fatal diseases can complete in order to raise money to help others with a similar condition. David had this drive and someone else I worked with, the playwright Dennis Potter. He would not let go until his final play was completed. I remember viewing an absolute exquisite painting by Modigliani and the label said “This was Modigliani’s last sitting. He died less than two hours after.”

In Dylan Jones’s biography A Life he made reference to an allusion you had that inspired the lyrics of “Heroes”.

The “Heroes” quote Dylan mentioned is quite true. It’s all about a day David and I spent together in Berlin. It began with David asking me if I dreamed about him because he dreamed about me. I told him I had just had a beautiful dream about swimming with dolphins. Then we spent that day walking by the Wall and David took me through Checkpoint Charlie to the East.

Could you tell me something about the fifteen sketches of David mentioned at the beginning of this interview?

These fifteen heads came about at sometime during the summer of 1996. I received a parcel from Iman. In it was a lovely letter explaining that it would be David’s 50th birthday, which I knew was on January 8, 1997. Iman explained that she had no idea what to give him and had thought that it would be rather wonderful to send a page of Japanese paper to each of David’s special friends and ask them to put something on this page as a message. Then to send the page back to her so she could have all the original pages bound into a book for David.

I should have photographed it before I sent my page but that sort of thing would never have occurred to me at the time. The heads came out of an effort to make a composition for painting a head in oil straight onto the Japanese paper, which is what I did. I did photograph the oil head image so I am able to include it with the other study heads in photographic form. I also included on that Japanese paper a small photo of me at the 1969 Free Festival and a message to David. He did not know I was there because someone had tipped me off that he was in a foul mood, so I kept well away! 

How much do you miss David?

I would like to add just — I know hidden in all his final works — there are secret messages to various special people and only those people will understand or recognise the ‘clues’. David is still talking to some of us.

Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli

Edited by Steve Pafford

Looking For Bowie: The Man And His Masks is published by Arcana

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