As we move into misty autumn, we will look at an Australian artist who worked in obscurity, and whose 127th birthday was on this year’s Equinox, March 21. Clarice Beckett was born into a comfortably-off Victorian family – her grandfather was the master builder who designed and built Como House.
Her father’s only ambition for his daughter seems to have been that she would marry into wealth, but her mother, a hobbyist painter, encouraged her artistic talents. Clarice studied art in Melbourne, including three years under Frederick McCubbin, and was a student of the controversial artist Max Meldrum, who argued that painting was a pure science, most reliant on tone, and with colour the least important component.
In 1918, Clarice’s father retired, moving his family to the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris. Her parents were ill and demanding, so that Clarice took responsibility for most of the household chores. Mr Beckett seems to have been disappointed in his career, and to have been a very difficult man. He wouldn’t allow Clarice to have a studio, telling her that the kitchen table was good enough.
Clarice built herself a little cart filled with painting equipment, which she used as a portable studio. She tended to go out very early and late, the only times she was free from domestic duties, to paint scenes from her local area, finding endless inspiration in the sea, beaches and suburban streets, bathed in the soft light of dawn and dusk. Her style was simple and original, and her paintings strongly atmospheric, often set on misty days.
Clarice was never taken seriously as an artist in her lifetime, with critics occasionally sneering at her “continual state of fog”, but most ignoring her completely. Sales of her work were pitifully small. Even her mentor Max Meldrum, who was supportive of her work, made it known that there would never be a great female artist, as women lacked the necessary capacity to be alone. Yet he praised Clarice for “working like a man”, and defended her fiercely. Her artist friends saw her as beautiful, unassuming and intelligent; sharply witty, but with the aloofness of extreme shyness.
In 1934, Mrs Beckett died from a stroke, and Clarice was severely affected by her mother’s death. The two had become very close, and Clarice was left alone with her invalid father, who became jealous of anything which might take his daughter away from him. She stopped attending art classes or social events, and when friends came to the house, Mr Beckett ordered them to leave. Clarice was now completely isolated, and she admitted to feeling a failure.
Clarice still painted whenever she could and one night, a year after her mother’s death, she continued working outdoors even though a storm had set in. She caught a chill which developed into pneumonia; her heart was already weak, and she died five days later, aged 48. The doctor believed that she might have survived, had her will to live been stronger.
It was not until 1971 that an exhibition of Clarice Beckett’s paintings were held, after more than 2000 of her canvases were found rotting away in a country barn. A leading critic hailed her as “a remarkable modernist”, and the Australian National Gallery purchased 14 of her paintings. The public were so enthusiastic that viewing hours were extended and the exhibition sold out. Since then, there have been several more public exhibitions of her work; she is regarded as one of Australia’s finest artists, and it is promised that she will never be forgotten again.
Clarice is a medieval form of the name Clara, a Roman name which comes from the Latin meaning “clear, bright”. Clarice is thought to be based on the Old French form, Claritia – just as the medieval name Lettice was based on Letitia. It was brought over by the Norman aristocracy, who were big fans of “Clare” names, and it can be found by the early 12th century, sometimes spelled Claris. Clara itself doesn’t seem to have been used in Britain until slightly later.
The name Clarice became well known in 1991 with the release of the Oscar-winning movie, The Silence of the Lambs, whose heroine is the beautifully named Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee on the trail of a serial killer. Clarice Starling was listed by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 100 movie heroes, and is the highest female on the list.
A rather different fictional Clarice is the equally delightfully named Clarice Bean Tuesday, from the children’s books by English author Lauren Child, who also penned the popular Charlie and Lola series. Clarice Bean is the middle child in her family, who longs for space and privacy, but instead finds herself in all kinds of amusingly chaotic situations.
If you like a name that has a song attached to it, you can sing along to Clarice, by Transatlantic folk-rockers, America. Like all songs by this band, I find it pleasant enough, but have little idea what it is about, although the lyrics don’t seem negative at all.
There are two pronunciations of Clarice. It can be said KLA-ris, to rhyme with Paris, which is a more British pronunciation, or it can be said kluh-REES, to rhyme with Denise, which is far more common in the United States. You’re welcome to choose either pronunciation, but to my mind, the first one sounds far more stylish and contemporary, while the second one reminds me of those pseudo-French names like Shanice and Fonice, which seem a bit daggy and dated.
Clarice is a strong yet elegant name which seems intelligent and dignified. It’s a very old name, but to me doesn’t seem “old-fashioned”. I can imagine it sounding adorable on a little girl, like Clarice Bean, but also perfect for an adult, like Clarice Beckett. It would make a great alternative to popular-yet-falling Claire, or fashionable-and-rising Clara for anyone who would like a traditional name which is still a little out of the ordinary.
(Picture is Punt Road Bridge, Yarra River by Clarice Beckett)