When she got the call, Claire Eastgate cancelled everything. In a frenzy, she raced around her Shropshire home scrambling together brushes, paints, oils, pencils, her easel, and launched them all into the back of her car. And, in her words, “then I basically just bombed it up to North Wales as quickly as I possibly could.”
Waiting there was the first ever (and only ever) female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Next to Duffy was Gillian Clarke, the matriarch of British poetry. “Would you like to paint Gillian as well?” Needless to say, Claire responded with a resounding yes.
It had been over a year since Eastgate approached Duffy before a poetry reading in the small town of Much Wenlock and asked if she would sit for a painting for her. Now, she sat with two giants of British poetry spending the afternoon talking about art, poetry, and everything in between. Students popped in and out of the studio, Duffy and Clarke read out unpublished poetry, wrote new poetry especially for Eastgate as she sketched drawings of them, weaving in their famous words under layers of oil and paint sometimes visible only with an x-ray. That session, which she calls “my best ever”, made its way to the National Portrait Gallery, with a double portrait of the two poets nominated for the BP Portrait Award. But it also inspired something deeper for Eastgate.
Always a lover of poetry, from that session onwards Eastgate found poetry. She spent the next year immersing herself in the world, from the critically acclaimed page poets to new and exciting spoken word artists, from Imtiaz Dharker to Kate Tempest – and she noticed something. “There was just this groundswell of female poets, a collective voice all at the same time speaking about topical and social issues with bravery and truth and without fear.” They were women pushing boundaries, speaking from voices not often heard, exploring issues not often talked about.
And she wondered: “Why isn’t anybody talking about this?”
So she started talking about it. Or, perhaps more accurately, painting about it. With over 15 years’ experience as an established professional artist and portrait painter behind her, Eastgate set out to talk to and paint the female poets who had been inspiring her as well as audiences worldwide.
The poets and spoken word artists sat for her, sometimes uncomfortably at first before easing into it – for almost all of them, it was the first time ever being painted. In these sessions Eastgate captured not only their likeness, but their stories, words, backgrounds, and just what exactly makes them write. They talked, not just about poetry, but the politics and necessity that underpins their words.
What started as a request to paint Carol Ann Duffy in a sleepy town in Shropshire, grew to a project painting and exploring a dozen poets and expanded, before Eastgate knew it, to 28 poets.
For one of those painted poets, Mona Arshi, the project was a timely reminder of just how far female poets have come, and the range and diversity of the poetic voices that have emerged. “We have to remember that until relatively recently, female poets work was very often ignored and it was rare to see their poems published and celebrated in anthologies and the poetry culture generally,” she tells us. “And it was almost impossible for female poets of colour to be heard which was ironic given how language was an important site of struggle for so many women writing.”
“Fortunately, there have been significant changes in the last few years with many of these brilliant poetic voices being centred at last. This project in Claire's sensitive hands is an important opportunity to acknowledge how far we've come and where we are going.”
Others painted as part of the project range from national poet laureate of Scotland Jackie Kay; to renowned spoken word artist and playwright Joelle Taylor; to Young People's Poet Laureate for London 2018 Momtaza Mehri; to the prize-winning Hollie McNish. It’s a who’s who of the most influential female poets in the country today, a diverse mix all chosen because they are pushing boundaries and inspiring a new narrative.
Painting the Poets finds its first viewing in front of a crowd at Kings Place in Kings Cross, London, at an event presented by Poet in the City on Wednesday 6 November. From there, Eastgate intends to exhibit the collection in galleries, providing a vibrant challenge to the walls of British institutions lined with dusty framed portraits of old men. She plans for it to slowly expand, taking in poets from further afield from different countries and cultures, to highlight the voices that aren’t usually amplified.
The exhibition brings together the long, vibrant and intertwined history between art and literature, which have always influenced each other and continue to do so. For Eastgate, the two mediums are intrinsically linked and can be evidenced in her work as words and poems layer in and out amidst the subject. So has this project inspired Eastgate to start writing poetry herself? She laughs coyly when we ask her. “Well I’ve dabbled a tiny, tiny bit…”
Book your tickets for Women in Frame event at King’s Place on Wednesday 6 November, from Poet in the City.
Visit Claire’s website to learn more about the project.