Philip Clairmont

Study for Portrait of Hamish Keith

oil pastel and graphite on paper
800mm x 605mm

signed P. CT., dated 1981 and inscribed Study for Portrait of Hamish Keith in oil pastel lower right

Note: This work is a study for the painting Portrait (1981), which is held in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki (acquired 1984, gift of Hamish Keith).

The estate of Philip Clairmont, Auckland.


This work appears in the following documentary: Bruce Morrison, “Philip Clairmont.” Profiles, NZ On Screen, 23:00,


“A critic at my house sees some paintings. Greatly perturbed, he asks for my drawings. My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” -Paul Gauguin


Read full text
Estimate $7,500 - $9,500

My Letters, My Secrets

by Martin Edmond

“A critic at my house sees some paintings. Greatly perturbed, he asks for my drawings. My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” -Paul Gauguin

Philip Clairmont was one of those kids who drew. Compulsively, from a young age. He was asthmatic as a child and spent a lot of time in bed, propped up against pillows, drawing. His mother, Thelma, who may have encouraged a tendency towards invalidism, also encouraged her son to draw. And she kept the results. The earliest surviving drawings are pictures of gunfighters shooting it out in a schematic OK Corral, vast synoptic scenes of battles from World War Two and pictures of bullfights.

Clairmont recalled: “I know I wanted to be a painter or a bullfighter and nothing else. And then I saw Goya. I don’t know in which order, whether I saw Goya and decided to be a bullfighter or whether I saw reproductions of Goya paintings of bullfights and decided to be a painter. I don’t think it occurred to me that I wasn’t in Spain.” As this suggests, these early works, in common with kids’ drawings everywhere, don’t distinguish between drawing and painting. They use pencil, ink, crayon and water colour indiscriminately, and the intent is to evoke a scene—not so much for any other audience, as for the boy himself. They are acts of imaginative identification made over into pictures. He is putting down on paper things he wants to see, or things he already sees in his mind.

The first real Clairmont drawings I know of are hanging on a wall in the hall at the Riverside Community at Upper Moutere, near Motueka. Riverside was founded by Christian pacifists in 1941. Philip and his mother stayed in a small cottage there over the summer of 1961-2 and during this period, in his thirteenth year, he drew some of the residents. One pen and ink drawing shows two men playing chess: a character study, full of suppressed tension, that demonstrates an awareness of Cezanne’s paintings of card players. Clairmont had a small book of black and white reproductions of Cezanne’s work, accompanied by a text in French, that his mother had given him.

At Nelson College there is a self portrait, done in oils, and in the family collection, some pencil drawings for it. Together they show that, by age fifteen, when he made this work, Clairmont was already familiar with the time-honoured method of drafting a graphic image that would later be used as the basis for a painting. Drawing, in this sense, is a kind of thinking. It stands in relation to subject matter the way a map does to a territory. It is a process of selection but also of elimination, and a declaration of intent. Verisimilitude is only one of its aims; expression is just as important, as is the clarification of the artist’s attitude to the material.

Over his years at art school Clairmont refined his drawing technique until he could quickly, skilfully and accurately reproduce convincing images of things in the world that interested him. He studied life drawing, made versions of classical statuary and copied the works of masters, for example Ernst Kirchner’s Self Portrait as a Soldier (1915) in which the artist, in uniform with a severed hand, stump oozing blood, stands before a nude in a studio. Around this time, Clairmont made a crayon drawing, Girl Going To Meet Her Lover, that could have been by Kirchner himself.

Clairmont drew a number of other self portraits and turned some of them into paintings, as he would continue to do throughout his life. He drew his fellow students and his friends, such as Tony Fomison, of whom there are several drawings and several paintings; as there are of his wife, Viki Clairmont, and their daughter, Melissa (b.1969). He learned how to make wood and lino cuts: reverse drawing, cut into the matrix, that is then inked and used to print a positive.