Clare Mackie selling exhibition in Edinburgh

Illustrator prepares to sell some of her much-loved illustrations for Country LIfe

The serenity of Clare Mackie’s Brighton home confirms my impression that illustrators work in conditions of utmost order, whereas painters’ studios are scenes of daubed and splattered chaos. An uncluttered workplace is, she insists, vital for fostering the artistic precision with which she is able to pinpoint the essence of the much-loved ‘My Week’ column and produce a new, pitch-perfect image every week.

She works in a neat room in the basement of her Regency terraced house, the tall desk with sets of brushes and paints arranged in rows, magnifying glass, pots of her favourite Cornelissen brushes and finished watercolours pinned on the wall offering little to distract.

Physical and mental order are essential to her exquisitely detailed craft: ‘The more peaceful you are when you paint, the more healing it is. Life is too frenetic. The clearer one is within, the clearer the reflection of the image you’ve created for the viewer. My job as an artist is to dip the brush into my soul and paint what’s there, to misquote Henry Ward Beecher.’ Montpelier Place is a world away from the Kincardineshire farm where Clare grew up surrounded by animals, mud and crops. But her enchantment with plants and insects has prevailed and her idyllic childhood in the Howe of Mearns is still a significant influence in her work.

‘I remember standing at the end of the garden and thinking it was Godly—looking up the howe with the Cairn o’ Mount behind, the wonderful smells, catching minnows in the river, the old school bell, loads of children to play with, the freedom. One sunny day, aged 12, I was in the school art room and suddenly I knew I was going to be an artist; it was like a light going on.’

She was encouraged by her mother, Irene, who was taught by Alberto Morrocco at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and ‘won awards there, but married a farmer and became a passionate gardener instead’. Her father is the scion of a distinguished political dynasty descended from Maitland Mackie, an Aberdeenshire farmer who gave each of his six children a farm.

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The eldest, Clare’s grandfather, became a Labour peer and chairman of the Forestry Commission; the other two sons became a Liberal peer and a Liberal knight respectively (from the latter descends the famous Mackie’s ice cream branch of the family); their sisters, Clare’s great aunts, became a Communist farmer, a Labour doctor married to the political editor of The Guardian and the wife of writer John R. Allan.

With this to live up to, you’d have thought Clare might have felt daunted, but, after gaining a First Class Honours degree in Illustration and Printmaking at Edinburgh College of Art, she launched her highly successful career in London and, in 1993, was taken on by John Locke Studios in New York, which represented her heroes Ronald Searle and Edward Gorey. She worked on campaigns with IBM, Badoit, Chanel and Harvey Nichols and did commissions for Tatler, Harpers & Queen, The Independent, Elle, Glamour and The New York Times. Recently, she’s designed award-winning ceramics for The DRH Collection and she also contributes her skills generously to charities.

Clare Mackie for Country Life
But, above all, Clare relishes her weekly fix of Country Life (above), an 11year collaboration that has produced 590 illustrations for ‘My Week’ and several others for features. (Her other regular illustration for Sandi Toksvig’s monthly Good Housekeeping column she describes as ‘more girly, featuring slightly glamorous women’.) Clare receives the ‘My Week’ text on a Friday and submits her illustration the following Tuesday. ‘Sometimes, writers are a touch late and I have only two or three sentences to work from. It’s challenging and forces me to think in a different way. As I read the piece, certain bits jump out. Sometimes,  I go completely blank and pace about the kitchen, but then, usually within the hour, something suddenly comes. It could be inspired by just three words. I like the clarity of one vignette; noisy pictures are very tiring.’ Quite often, the text comes to her unnamed, but it makes no difference knowing or not knowing who wrote it, she says.

Next month, at the suggestion of her brother, John Mackie, a director and Decorative Arts specialist at Lyon & Turnbull, Clare is holding an exhibition of her COUNTRY LIFE illustrations. ‘I procrastinated when the idea of selling them was first raised, but found that putting them in frames cheered me immensely. What’s the point of keeping paintings stored in boxes if they can give people pleasure? I now realise that my pieces have another job to do.’

‘Clare Mackie for COUNTRY LIFE—11 Joyous Years’ is at Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, on September 7–12. Exhibition for view and sale:

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* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on August 27 2014