Chris Owen interviews: Celia Clark

AUTHOR Celia Clark with her grandchildren Roman, left, and Nilla.   Picture: Ian Hargreaves (112947-1)
AUTHOR Celia Clark with her grandchildren Roman, left, and Nilla. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (112947-1)
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Celia Clark’s sitting room floor is covered in photographs. They are her own pictures.

Various mounts and frames are scattered around them.

ALPHABET Pages from Celia Clark's children's book

ALPHABET Pages from Celia Clark's children's book

Her daughter has asked for a selection of her mother’s shots to hang in her New York home and Celia is attempting to choose between them.

The house is a temple to art. The walls drip with work by a wide variety of artists – an eye-catching painting of a motor torpedo boat on the foreshore at Appledore, Devon, here, a tightly-cropped Southsea landscape of terraced houses, there.

One unique work though defines Dr Celia Clark. In a corner of the living room is a deck chair. Its canvas seat is painted with an image of the building which once defined Portsmouth and certainly helped define Celia, the Tricorn.

It was the icon to 1960s brutalist architecture, and her campaign to save it, which brought her to prominence.

And it’s her passion for architecture, both ancient and modern, which led her to compile her latest, somewhat unusual, project – an alphabet book.

Its title gives the game away – Granny’s Gorgeous Alphabet.

But this is not a simple A is for apple, Z is for Zoo book.

It features her own pictures, many of them taken in Portsmouth, some close to her home in Florence Road, Southsea. Architecture, art and anything vintage are the dominant themes.

For example, the letter H is one of the supporting structures on a bridge in Bilbao, Spain. Z is represented by the Tricornesque Ziggurat office block in Toronto.

But why has the 68-year-old, one of the founders of the Portsmouth Society in 1973 and now its president, taken this step?

The clue is the letter A. A is for architect and the accompanying picture is of her daughter Catherine, an architect in New York, posing in front of a new school she designed which looks out on the Statue of Liberty.

C is for curls and Celia’s picture is of her corkscrew-haired grandson Henry, now two, who lives in Brooklyn and to whom the book is dedicated.

This delightfully different and high-quality book has been designed and published by the Old Portsmouth publishers Tricorn Books.

Celia says: ‘I love letters. I’m fascinated by them – the different type faces, the way in which everyday objects form them. And, of course, I have a great love of architecture.’

She reaches up to the book-filled shelves lining her sitting room and pulls out two alphabet books. She collects them.

One was published in 1899, is based on the Boer War and is little more than a propaganda exercise for the glories of the British empire. Another is Edwardian.

‘So, when Henry came along I decided I wanted to create my own for him and my other two grandchildren Roman and Nilla,’ says Celia.

‘I’ve got thousands of photographs and love to take pictures of interesting letters so I gave the publishers a complete set of hundreds of letters and scenes which would depict them.

‘I know it’s a little wacky and children might not be able to recognise all the letters in the conventional sense – for example, the L, which is very gothic, was photographed at Froyle Church in north east Hampshire.

‘Children might not learn from that because it’s so old-fashioned, but the accompanying picture of a llama might help.

‘The whole point of it is to teach children to enjoy letters and the images that go with them.

‘I just thought it would be fun for parents and grandparents to sit down together and enjoy looking at pictures.’

Local pictures include the giant Ultrasaurus which graced Southsea Common last year (D for dinosaur); Celia on a 1960s scooter at Goodwood (G for Granny); M is represented by a collection of vintage Minis at Gunwharf Quays, while V is depicted by husband Deane pushing a vintage van, also at Goodwood.

And we get to Z and that image of the Ziggurat building in Toronto, and Celia, who has a degree in historic conservation, can’t resist bringing up the subject of the Tricorn which was razed in 2004 and replaced by a car park.

‘You know how interested I am in the Tricorn,’ she says. ‘I even wrote a book about it. Well, I was invited to lecture on brutalism in Toronto and I didn’t know why until I got there and saw this building.

‘It’s very popular and they’re still building in the brutalist style. Why aren’t we?

‘There is a prejudice within English Heritage against commercial brutalism, by that I mean buildings built in that style which had a solely commercial use.

‘No one would suggest knocking down the Royal National Theatre complex on the South Bank would they? Of course, they wouldn’t because it’s a public building, but the poor old Tricorn...’

She continues: ‘What’s more, the Tricorn could so easily have been remodelled because it was not a listed building.

‘You could have knocked down bits and added bits and still kept its integrity.

‘Every time I go past that site I get very, very angry because it’s empty and it’s likely to remain empty.

‘And you know what, if the plan for The Hard and the Portsea waterfront redevelopment happens, the Tricorn site is dead in the water.

‘No one will ever build on it because all the energy will have gone into the waterfront.

‘They will have pulled it down for nothing.’

And, in case you’re wondering, no the T is not for Tricorn, but a far less stressful picture of tomatoes on a farmers’ market stall in New York.

· Granny’s Gorgeous Alphabet by Celia Clark, published by Tricorn Books at £12.99 is available from her at 8, Florence Road, Southsea, tel: (023) 9273 2912.

NO NATIVE NEW YORKER

She might now be a native New Yorker, but Celia Clark’s daughter Catherine Fast will forever have a part of Portsmouth indelibly etched upon her soul.

For she was born Catherine Lesley Rivers Clark with the name Rivers coming from the first building her mother helped save in Portsmouth.

Rivers Street Hall in Somers Town was a little church school built by George Absolom in 1868 for the poor children of St Peter’s parish and paid for by the wealthier congregation of St Jude’s Church.

Celia says: ‘In the mid 1970s it was empty and decaying, but its coursed pebble walls and gabled Gothic-tiled roof and the two halls inside attracted Hurst Rinehart – who was a clown when he was not working as a photographic technician at the College of Art –

for its potential as a small theatre arts space.’

Celia and a few others formed the Somers Town Community Association to save it.

She adds: ‘Because we had no financial resources, we had to turn ourselves into employers and run a youth employment programme to repair it.

‘The committee meetings were sometimes held in the street outside, because it was too cold and damp inside.’

The success of the campaign led to the group winning a national award and Celia had to collect it and a £2,000 cheque at Covent Garden heavily pregnant with Catherine.

Hence the name.