Walking down Walthamstow High Street, Jonathan Brind stopped in his tracks.
For coming towards him was a striking fellow, with something of a military bearing.
A man, in his 70s, bedecked in smart clothing of a bygone era, complete with hat, happily puffing away on his pipe, unaware that he had caught the attention of the Leyton filmmaker.
“The first time I saw Clarence Crawford,“ say Jonathan, excitement rising in his voice, “I thought, what an incredible sight, I’ve got to photograph this guy.
“I’ve made lots of videos about local subjects over the years; I made one about Walthamstow Dogs, just before it shut. I find local stories offer a great source of rich material.
“So I went up to him and asked.“
Little did Jonathan know, this was not just one of Walthamstow’s resident eccentrics.
Clarence Crawford is an artist. A graduate of Hornsey Art College, he has painted a number of famous and respected faces including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict XVI and the Sultan of Brunei.
But to Jonathan’s horror, he says, Clarence has been completely ignored by the art world.
“To be frank, when I found out Clarence was an artist, when he invited me to his studio, I was reluctant.
“At the time, I had other things going on and taking a photograph of someone in the street is one thing, but taking your gear over to a studio and setting up is a different kettle of fish.
“Most artists you see, I find their stuff is of limited appeal. It gets them excited, but it doesn’t really excite me. It’s often not easily accessible to a general audience or people who are not experts in the art market, such as myself.
“I didn’t know the stuff that Clarence did, but when I went to his studio, I was gobsmacked. Here you’ve got a guy who is producing work that is every bit as good as Victorian portrait painters – he’s still alive, he’s doing it in Walthamstow and he’s being totally ignored.
“I think it’s because the world’s moved on. In the Victorian era it was impossible to get a photo or video of the same quality as a painting.
“But when photography developed, art lost its way, there was less call for it and art became a concept, rather than something accessible to a general audience."
It’s not surprising then that, amazed by Clarence’s abilities, a film about his life and the injustice of the art world has followed – nine months, “an appropriate gestation period“– after that initial meeting.
Just as Clarence spends countless hours, days, weeks and months capturing the essence of his subjects in oils, Jonathan has delved into Clarence’s life; from his early days boarding at Bombay Scottish School, to a brush with the law, which encouraged him to take up painting full time, to how Anthony Hopkins’ wife opted for Clarence’s painting of the actor, over that of a Royal Portrait Society artist.
The end result is a documentary that gives viewers a snapshot of what life is like as an artist, with all of its highs and lows.
“I don’t think this film will bring me fame and fortune,“ says Clarence, 75, reflecting on the process. “Just like I never thought art would either. I’m not expecting anything special; I’m too long in the tooth.
“I saw Jonathan as a young artist using me as a model. My main focus is to carry on working. Death would make me put down the paintbrush. I love painting so much, if I’m not at an easel for a long period, I feel I’m wasting my time and I equate that to withdrawal symptoms. I feel sorry for my family, my studio is full of paintings, when I pop off, they’ll have a lot to disperse."
The film is set to be exclusively premiered at the Hornbeam Centre in Walthamstow on Friday but, similarly to Clarence, Jonathan is unsure whether the piece will mark a turning point in the artist’s career.
“It’s sad because there is a real skill in what Clarence does, he’s not someone who has picked up a paintbrush and said, this is art because I call it art,“ says Jonathan.
“It’s depressing that his sheer craftsmanship doesn’t have an audience out there, that people don’t realise not only is his work good, but really important.
“Instead it’s left to people who are shocking. Only those with a strong public relations gene and an ability to turn themselves into brands or products in the art market make it and those that do make enormous amounts of money. All the struggling artists in Walthamstow make about £50 in ten years.
“So at best this film is a way of exposing the art world. I’m even more unsuccessful than Clarence is, so I can’t pretend I’m going to transform his fortunes overnight.
“But Clarence is the sort of guy that, once you see him, you won’t forget him easily. I hope that will be the same with the film.“
Clarence Crawford – Portrait of an Artist will premiere at The Hornbeam Centre, Hoe Street, Walthamstow, Friday, January 18, at 7.30pm. Details: 020 8558 6880 or www.clarencecrawford.co.uk