In 2021 the National Galleries of Scotland acquired a new portrait of Carol Ann Duffy, titled 'Air and Light' A Portrait of Carol Ann Duffy, 2016. Painted by Shropshire-based artist Clae Eastgate, this portrait is part of a wider body of work dedicated to painting women poets based in the UK. This series, ‘Painting the Poets’, responds to the emergence of a new generation of women writing poetry inspired by Duffy’s laureateship. We caught up with Eastgate to find out more about the process of creating this portrait in collaboration with Duffy, and the artist’s vision for the future of ‘Painting the Poets’.
Tell us about ‘Painting the Poets’ series.
Eastgate: I met Carol Ann Duffy in 2016, and asked if I could paint her portrait. She agreed. From the initial sittings I painted several versions of her before painting a larger double portrait of her in conversation with her friend and former National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke. The ‘Painting the Poets’ series was born out of this double portrait of Duffy and Clarke. From painting this portrait I was able to get involved with the poetry community.
I recognised that in the wake of Carol Ann Duffy’s laureateship there was a wave of women poets coming to the forefront and publishing poetry from a female perspective. Historically, great women poets have been represented as more isolated figures, operating alone. I wanted to represent the collective voice that we are seeing more today.
The painting was unexpectedly successful in its popularity, so I decided to continue to mark this period of female writing through poetry.
How do you choose a poet as a subject for this series?
Eastgate: Every decade the Poetry Book Society brings out a list of poets to look out for. I noticed that their most recent list was approximately fifty-percent women, and this is where I began to approach poets for the series. Over the past few years, as the series has grown, I’ve loved witnessing how the careers of these poets have evolved. For instance, Jackie Kay is included in the collection to celebrate her contributions as Scots Makar. I had already read a couple of her books and a little of her poetry. I love how her heritage and lived experience enrich and broaden the readers perspective so much.
Where does the title of the portrait come from?
Eastgate: The portrait is named after a poem Duffy wrote during the sitting for the painting The Poets, which is a double portrait of Duffy and Gillian Clarke. It’s a private poem so I won’t reveal anything more about it. As I have done with all portraits in the series, I embed fragments of poetry into the painting itself. I do this by building up layers of paint; some are revealed and some disappear into the deeper layers. Maybe more can be seen under X-ray! This collage-like process partly reflects the story of the poet.
What’s your future vision for the series?
Eastgate: It’s a long-term project. I’d like it to travel and become global. My dream is to begin painting female poets and writers in different countries too. The core of this project, while painting the portraits of particular poets, is to represent the voices of women from all walks of life. I feel it is important that there is a bigger platform for this; one that will grow, and hopefully empower women whose voices and experiences are marginalised. Poetry has such immediacy in its connection, and the power of the medium is strengthened by visual representation of its creators.