Culture Northern Ireland
Claire Falconer Set To Soar
Jenny Cathcart on the young Fermanagh artist
If Claire Falconer was born under a wandering star, it was a lucky one.
Few young women of 28 have packed so much adventure and achievement into their lives. Much of her journey thus far has been guided by fortuitous meetings and unexpected invitations. I caught up with Falconer during a visit to her home town, Enniskillen.
She has been living in Rome in recent years and is looking forward to visiting Hollywood, California where her boyfriend of eight years, film-maker Christian Filippella, is studying for a Master’s degree at the American Film Institute.
Falconer’s story as an artist begins at Mount Lourdes convent school in Enniskillen, where she passed A level art along with Spanish and English Literature.
She remembers her early admiration for the work of the Irish painter Louis Le Brocquy and how one of her exam set pieces was inspired by his impressionistic heads. She painted a group portrait of nine of her female friends, one half in the style of Le Brocquy and the other half in a photorealist style so delicately precise that she achieved it using a paint brush with three hairs.
Looking back, she bemoans the lack of careers advice at the school. Despite her exceptional talent as a painter, she was persuaded to read law at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Although she completed her degree course she was never called to the Bar, for Lady Fortune had other plans. It was during a law study term in Spain that Falconer met Filippella, a fellow law student from Italy.
They fell in love and began to share their passion for film-making, photography and art. They kept in touch which each other while completing their degree courses, Filippella in Italy and Falconer in Belfast.
Falconer took photographs for the Queen’s University newspaper and worked part time in Quick Snaps photographic shop in Bradbury Place. It was there she was to meet the painter Ken Hamilton, who regularly brought photographs of his paintings to be developed in the shop.
Admiring his work, Falconer struck up a friendship with Hamilton and began sitting for his portraits. Hamilton became her mentor, introducing her to the work of the Italian portrait painter Annigone who famously painted the Queen in 1964.
Falconer was introduced to the work of Tamara de Lempicka, the Russian artist who, perhaps more than any other painter, defined the art deco period with her female portraits.
At Hamilton’s insistence, Falconer began painting in earnest, setting to work on a copy of a Vatican fresco. Painstakingly, she mixed her oil paints until she found exact matches for the original work. Hamilton was astounded by what she had produced and Falconer had found her true vocation.
When in Enniskillen, Falconer had used her aunt’s house in Derrychara as a studio, chosen for its large windows, views over Lough Erne and tiled floors that were tolerant of paint spills. She worked on landscape paintings, including Donegal Seascapes.
Falconer’s work was recognised by the art world when she won a National RTE art competition in October 2001. Twenty-six of her paintings were displayed at the Abode Gallery in Dublin and she began to sell her work through the Clanart Gallery in Enniskillen.
Filippella came to spend holidays in Ireland and together the pair produced a low budget (£400) short film entitled Playing with Water. It was awarded first prize at an Italian Film festival, earning Filippella a place at film school in Rome.
When she joined Filippella in Italy, Falconer found the freedom and inspiration to work prolifically, pursuing her preoccupation with female beauty – whether in delicate pencil drawings or charcoal sketches, pastels or oils.
Her portraits, including self portraits, seem at once ancient and modern. A Romanian actress who commissioned Falconer to take promotional photographs became a subject for several portraits.
A Japanese girl whom Falconer dressed in sumptuous embroidered brocade was depicted in a stylised painting that was to become one of Falconer’s most successful pieces of work, selling for more than £7,000.
Visits to Italian art galleries developed a growing appreciation of Dali, Kandinsky and other European artists. A Cézanne exhibition inspired a series of still life canvasses.
Falconer explored new landscapes at Caserta, and a trip to Venice produced a series of six carnival and canal scenes, the waters and their reflections an ideal subject for her technically accomplished oil painting. Some of these pieces appeared in group shows at the Mondrian suite in Rome.
In 2003, Falconer was commissioned to paint a portrait of Richard Bennett, Headmaster of Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. The painting was completed in five sittings, now hanging proudly in the school gallery.
Working in her Rome studio, Falconer met film director Alex Infascelli, who was scouting out the building as a possible film location. Not only did he agree to the location but hired Falconer to play a leading role in the film, an experience which she relished.
Falconer clearly aspires to perfection in her art and in her life. Petite, with a perfect round face, perfect eye lashes, perfect black hair, she collects beautiful objects and fabrics, and speaks of an ongoing quest for serenity.
Perhaps it is this same longing for perfection that has led Falconer to take stock. She admits to having reached a watershed with some forty unfinished paintings. Before leaving Rome she divided them into three groups.
The first she decided to leave in Italy never to be worked on again, the second group which could yet be finished. The third, a set of new portraits which mark a change in style – more sculptured, more abstract, and less textured, are now on sale at the Clanart Gallery. They include her first blonde female, a Botticelli type goddess, expressionless, iconic, her perfect head set starkly against a plain turquoise background.