Peter Clarke

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Biographical information


Poet, book illustrator, artist, recipient of The National Order of Ikhamanga for excellence in the fields of arts and literature

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Simonstown, Cape Town, South Africa
Date of death: 
13 April 2014
Location of death: 
Ocean View, Cape Town, Western Cape

Peter Edward Clarke was born in Cardiff Road, Simon’s Town, Western Cape on 2 June 1929, the third born child in a family of six. His mother was a domestic worker and his father a dockyard labourer. His parents were both interested in reading and inculcated in him the love for reading.  

Clarke’s family moved to a two bed roomed cottage in Wesley Street when he was four years old. He attended the Boys Mission School and Arsenal Road Secondary School. In 1944, he went to Livingston High school to do grade 9. He was a free spirited boy who did not enjoy the regimented life at school. After spending a year at Livingston High School, he told his parents that he no longer wanted to go to school.

Peter’s parents with their meagre income always tried to support him by providing him with a regular supply of pencils, crayons and paper to practise his art. 

His parents, though disappointed, decided that if he did not want to go to school, he would have to go to work. At the age of 15, Clarke found employment at the Cape Town dockyard, as a boat cleaner and painter. This was during the Second World War.  After the war he found himself unemployed and then the Navy re-employed him in the Works Dept at the Dockyard.

Working by day, he painted until late at night.  In 1947, Clarke attended evening art classes at Saint Philips School in Woodstock, Cape Town and studied at the Cape Technical College in 1948. Clarke was inspired by Mexican Art such as an oil painting by Orozo, called “Zapatistas”. Zapatistas were freedom fighters in Mexico.

 A comment by his domestic worker sister to her “madam” about her brother who ‘likes to paint’, led to him being brought to the attention of Dean Anderson, the head of the architectural school at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Anderson bought some of Clarke’s work and word of the talented young man from Simon’s Town started to spread.

Mathys Bokhorst, the Director of the National Gallery, also in Cape Town, came to know about him and, thus, in 1951, Peter took part in a group exhibition at the Association of Arts Gallery in Cape Town for the first time. By this time the Clarke family had moved from Wesley Street to the Waterfall Flats in Waterfall Road, where a steady stream of visitors came to view his work. An offer by Maskew Miller to do book illustrations soon followed.

While painting was his first love, Peter also enjoyed creative writing and in 1955 he won first prize in a short story competition. The prize money of fifty pounds he spent on art materials. In 1956, Peter felt the need to take time out where he could paint quietly and undisturbed for a few months at a time. A friend arranged for him to spend three months at his family home in Tesserlaarsdal, a little village in Caledon, Western Cape where his friend’s father lived alone. It was at this time that Clarke gave up his day-time job at the dockyard and from then on, for several years, he would go to Tesserlaarsdal to paint from September to December of every year. The solitude and serenity at Tesserlaarsdal gave him the freedom to produce many beautiful pieces of art and culminated in his first solo exhibition in 1957. This was held at the Golden City Post newspaper offices.

In time, Clarke's reputation grew to such an extent that in 1961, following an exhibition of his work in District Six, the University of Cape Town allowed him to enrol for three months in order to study etching. Subsequently he spent some time at the Rijksakademie van Beeldenden Kusten in The Netherlands, where he broadened his artistic education. German Expressionists and Mexican artists of the period spanning the 1930s to the 1950s were to influence his work, as well as his liking for the austere beauty of traditional Japanese art.

By 1961, Peter’s art was being showcased at exhibitions in England, Germany and the United States of America (USA) and in 1962 he was invited to study printmaking in Holland. A few years later he went to Norway where he again studied etching. He also continued to write and one of his stories “Eleven O’Clock: The Wagons, the Shore” was read on the BBC radio in England.

In 1966, a year after receiving the C P Hoogenhout Book Illustration Award, Clarke’s personal world became unsettled by newspaper reports that Simon’s Town had become an ‘affected area’ under the Group Areas Act.  The community was to be moved to Ocean View, in another part of Simon’s Town.

People were by then forced to move to Ocean View and the place was becoming more and more deserted. Eventually the Clarke family was one of the last families in the area to move to Ocean View.

In 1975, he was invited to take part in an International Writer’s programme at the University of Iowa, USA, where he spent nine months. While he wrote a good deal of poetry during his stay, it was in his art that the sense of prevailing loss he felt was so clearly evident. For more than 20 years he ran an art workshop for underprivileged children in Ocean View, Cape Town and although he says he didn’t expect his students to all become artists, a few did choose art as their careers.

Clarke has always worked in a variety of media. He is best known for his graphic prints, woodcuts, paintings, illustrations, books made from recycled paper and leather, and, in later years, collages embodying a number of different materials and objects. His themes are as eclectic as his materials, but one constant is their commitment to the human condition in all its aspects. He is also an internationally known writer and poet who has illustrated books published in South Africa, Sweden, Germany, Britain, Nigeria and Switzerland.

Instead of using his talent for self-enrichment, he produces his art for “art’s sake”. He donated a sizeable quantity of art to the Caledon Museum.

In 2005, President Thabo Mbeki conferred The National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver on him for excellence in the fields of arts and literature.

He has illustrated books published in South Africa, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Nigeria and the UK and since the 1950s, has written short stories, essays and is an internationally acclaimed poet.


Six international awards for writing and art (Italy, USA, & Taiwan), including Honorary life member, Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles (1984). Six South African awards for writing and art, including three since 2000, the Order of Ikhamanga, silver class (2005), and the Molteno Award (2000) for services to the visual arts, awarded by the Cape Tercentenary Foundation.

Selected exhibitions:

1957: Golden City Post, Cape Town, South Africa (first solo)

1961: Galerie Schoninger, Munich, West Germany (SA Graphic Art)

1961: São Paulo Biennial

1963: 5th International Graphic Art Biennale, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria (International Graphic Art)

1964: Venice, Italy (Biennale)

6th International Graphic Art Biennale, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia

1973: Shell Harbour Art Centre, Shell Harbour, NSW Australia (solo)

Pratt Graphics Centre, New York, US (group)

1979: Pratt Institute, New York

1982: South African Art, National Gallery, Gaberone, Botswana

1987: Chelsea Gallery, Wynberg, Cape Town (solo), Campinas, Brazil (Biennale Internacional de Gravura), Museum fur Volkerkunde, Frankfurt, W. Germany

1990: Freedom Now, Namibian independence exhibition, Windhoek, Namibia

1994: 3rd Triennial World Exhibition of Prints, Auvergne, France

1995: 18th Triennial World Exhibition of Prints, Kanagawa, Japan

2000: Bertolt Brecht House, Berlin, Germany

Peter Edward Clarke passed away on 13 April 2014, Ocean View, Cape Town, Western Cape

• Joline Young. The life of Peter Clarke from FEMTOfull Circle Digital Magazine, August 2013. Available at online. Accessed on 15 April 2014
•  The Presidency. (2005). Peter Edward Clarke (1929”“). Available at online.  Accessed on 15 April 2014
• Iniva ”“ Peter Clarke, Artist  Available at online. Accessed on 15 April 2014 

Last updated : 26-Oct-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011