Saturday 21 October 2017

Living dolls: Keeping Bob Carlos Clarke's memory alive

Ahead of Bob Carlos Clarke exhibition Little Dolls at The Little Black Gallery, his widow and daughter speak frankly about coming to terms with his untimely suicide and keeping his brilliant legacy alive.

Scarlett Carlos-Clarke with some of her father's work
Scarlett Carlos-Clarke with some of her father's work
Scarlett Carlos-Clarke with some of her father's work. Photo: National Pictures / Hannah McKay
Lindsey Carlos-Clarke
Bob Carlos-Clarke

Julia Molony

The sun is blazing down on the paving flags in a picturesque corner of South West London. Here amongst the gourmet delis, Chelsea tractors, Sloaney boutiques and residences of London's financial elite, remains one last stronghold of bohemia. Almost a decade after the eccentric photographer Bob Carlos Clarke committed suicide at the age of 55, The Little Black Gallery remains his creative and spiritual home. This month, they are hosting another exhibition of his work, titled Little Dolls, to commemorate 10 years since the last show before his death.

And now, here come two of his representatives – two blondes, both with the same long, mussed hair. One is very young. She wears fuchsia lipstick, a grave expression and fashion student black. The other, older, is vocal, vivacious and quick to smile.

Carlos Clarke is dead, but his widow and his 22-year-old daughter are still bravely, gamely, keeping his career alive, doing his PR, guarding his memory and his archive, engaging with his public. Even before the terrible day that the police came to knock on her door, after her husband checked himself out of The Priory and threw himself in front of a train at Barnes station, Lindsey Carlos Clarke had a premonition that this duty might fall to her. "I had always been aware I might end up being the keeper of the key," she says. "I always had that sensation years before. I just didn't know how."

It's a difficult position to be in, she admits, charged with keeping his memory alive but also needing to move on with her own life. "We're obsessed with that programme with hoarders – we're riveted – hoping I'm not going to turn into one. But a lot of it is about when people have trauma, it's about moving forward but, of course, we have a huge archive of photographs and we have a whole building full of all his work and his cameras and everything else – how can we walk away from that?"

And so, periodically, they submit to reliving the darkest days of their lives with journalists.

Lindsey Carlos Clarke was in her twenties and already married when she met a rising young Irish photographer. They started an intense affair and, careers on the rise, became a golden couple at the centre of London society – hanging out at Harvey's with Marco Pierre White, boozing with Keith Richards.

Carlos Clarke was the product of a troubled Anglo-Irish upbringing in Cork. He had a quixotic and volatile personality and unruly looks. His miserable time at boarding school and his own tendency towards self-criticism had sharpened a cruel streak that remained with him throughout his life.

"He was," Lindsey says simply, "the most exciting man I'd ever met." He was an exacting and obsessive control freak when it came to his work, but as a husband, his relentless thrill seeking was both infectious and terrifying. Lindsey remembers careering off the motorway while driving because on hearing a problem with the car, he decided to accelerate until the bonnet flew up and blocked his view.

He was a fatalist. "When I met him, all he talked about was his father being so much older and he lived in fear of his father dying and everybody seemed to have fathers that were young," says Lindsey. "He was terrified of the aging process then. And we got together in 1976. So we were young."

So much so, that soon after they got together, the photographer and model made a suicide pact. "We had a house that had a very white space-age kitchen," Lindsey explains, and they'd decided to do a book of the ageing process – naked against the white wall in the kitchen.

"He said, 'and when we get to a point when we realise, no longer do we like the pictures of ourselves – we'll do ourselves in'. Which seemed absolutely fine when you're very young, you can say those sorts of things. But you see, when I think about that, although we laughed and thought it was terribly funny, although I don't know how many pictures we did, but we did get bored, the whole idea sort of went down the pan quite quickly. But I think you see that fear of ageing, it was deep in there. Big damage, he was very damaged. Very damaged by all sorts of things."

As Bob Carlos Clarke aged, he felt increasingly displaced and marooned by the wellspring of youth and beauty that surrounded him as a working photographer.

His daughter was just 14 when he died. She thinks she has inherited some of his cruel humour. She's also taken on his image making talent. She is a photographer and already has one of her pictures hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is a portrait of her father, taken when she was just a child; it reveals him in a way unseen elsewhere, bare-chested, saturnine, a look that is both evasive and challenging in his eyes.

Scarlett originally thought her interest in photography should just be a hobby "because I enjoyed doing it I didn't want it to be something that you rely on to make money – but now I want to do it properly – it took me a long time to realise. I was trying to put if off for ages maybe because I (was like) I'm obviously just doing it because of dad being a photographer. And I'll get known just for being the daughter of a photographer – but now I've realised that I have a completely different style to his and also I feel it's what I'm meant to do."

Though Lindsey is clearly the more dominant character, she and her daughter seem close. How did Bob's death influence their relationship?

"We sort of clung together, didn't we?" Lindsey says. "I remember feeling like I was a ship in a storm. Terrible feeling – for weeks I shook inside – the most terrible jelly feeling. That's shock, I suppose."

"I think you go into shock and people think that that means – because when you are in shock you don't really show (what you're feeling) so everyone goes oh – they're coping really well. But actually you're not and you don't even know that you're not," Scarlett adds.

"And you do weird things," Lindsey remembers, "hysteria, laughing." She was out in a restaurant, "and somebody came over to me and said, 'Oh, is this the merry widow'. And it really upset me, because I was like, god if you have anybody in your life that has some awful trauma, and you see them being able to smile or laugh, be pleased for them for god's sake. It's like an out of body experience."

Nobody equipped me to deal with this – so you just do what you can ... I didn't want to fall apart and for Scarlett, who was only 14, to feel that she'd lost both parents."

Scarlett, who was in boarding school and clinging to the structure of carrying on as normal, remembers repressing a lot of what she was feeling at the time. "When I look back (at photographs and videos) I'm all hunched over. My shoulders are up here, and I look really not normal. At the time I didn't feel like that, but looking back I look like I've been in a massive shock or something and I'm all curled up. I think it still carries on now. I still have times when I feel like it's just happened. It doesn't really change."

Lindsey says "You learn to put it in a compartment. And sometimes you access it, like we are now, and sometimes it just goes."

Was she furious with her father after it happened, for abandoning her? "I don't know," she says. "Probably. But you don't want to be an angry person – that's the last thing you want to be, but I think that probably does happen a bit. You're more angry because you can't actually do anything about it. I feel like it would have been good for me being older now, I would have got on with him a lot better – he would have been able to give me advice about lots of things, we'd have been able to laugh about loads of things. And I feel like I've missed out on that. But I also know we probably would have fought about things as well."

"He wouldn't have let you have a camera. He would have had it out of your hand," says Lindsey.

He could be overbearing, Scarlett agrees. "He wanted me to do film stuff, but he would always get involved with it. If I was ever working on anything he'd have to come and do it with a scalpel and make it perfect."

They often are moved to reflect together on what might have been – how things would be different if he was still alive.

"I don't think it would have been good for my photography, but it would have been good for my life," Scarlett says. She's tried therapy, in a bid to come to terms with his death, but feels ultimately the best way to survive is to work hard and succeed.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge. Lindsey is now remarried, to professional golfer Andrew Raitt.

"I made a decision that I thought it would be a good idea to move forward. I know this is going to sound terribly weird, I hope Andrew doesn't read this, but having had a mum who lived on her own for I don't know how long – 40 years or something – I think I really didn't want Scarlett, as an only child, to feel burdened by me, and feel that I was on my own, and she'd better come and see me or anything like that.

"And I think that was a lot to do with it, I think escapism was part of it, if I'm truly honest with you, and I really wanted to get married in a church in a big dress."

She admits that her continuing involvement in the Carlos Clarke legacy makes things difficult for Andrew.

"Because basically I should be Mrs something else and everybody calls me Mrs Carlos Clarke. I'm always going to be that. It's been incredibly tough on him. I'm glad in a way he comes from another world. It's nice for me to have somebody who is nice in my life. And he's a great fan of Scarlett's; she's probably not a great fan of his," she says, though Scarlett pipes up to disagree.

"But it's ok," Lindsey goes on. "She accepted it, which was great. He's never tried to be her father or anything, don't be ridiculous, they're practically the same age, but we won't discuss that! I've got to have somebody to look after me, don't I?"

Bob Carlos Clarke: Living Dolls is at The Little Black Gallery, London, from May 10 to June 21, supported by Olympus. www.littleblackgallery.com

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