Clay spent an idyllic childhood in rural Surrey. He left school with scant qualifications and a love of poetry, literature and art.
At this time, it was obligatory to do National Service. Not wishing to bear arms, having grown up during a devastating war. He opted to study farm management, which made him exempt. When cutting kale during a freezing winter, he dreamt of foreign lands and decided to join the Merchant Navy then went to sea school.
Ironically, his first voyage, and at the age of 16, took him to the blockade of the Suez canal and an unexpected 9 months trip around the coast of Africa. Jako, a fellow crew member, introduced him to Jack Kerouac’s, ‘On The Road’, the beat poets and the French pub in Dean Street, Soho, the notorious Colony rooms, and the extraordinary people that gathered there.
At sea Clay travelled to South America, taught himself Spanish and acquired his qualifications after steering a ship through the Panama canal sporting tropical whites.
These journeys inspired Clay visually, and he decided that he would like to study photography. This was not readily available, but Ifor Thomas offered him a place at Guildford Art School, although he did not have the necessary qualifications. He learnt about light, composition and how to use a plate camera, also to work with patience and perseverance.
He spoke to Ifor about photojournalism, who suggested that he purchased a small camera, and learnt to observe people, quietly, inspired by the work of Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, and William Klein.
He spent time in Cable Street, a run down part of the East End of London, near the docks, that he had sailed from.
It was an area inhabited by small time villains, misfits and immigrants, who had got no further than the port, when they arrived. Clay used to buy his weed there, which he’d acquired a taste for on his travels in Africa. He was accepted into their rather dangerous community, and they were happy to be photographed by him. He was able to take unique photographs of these times.
On leaving art school Clay went on to work for Black Star, a Fleet Street Press agency, and his first assignment was to follow the supposed participants in the Profumo affair, these Included Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice Davis, and many well known people.
At the same time he became involved with the R&B scene in London, which was centred around the Crawdaddy club, Eel Pie Island, and the Station Hotel in Richmond. It was there he met Georgio Gomelski who managed the Stones and the Yardbirds, among others. Clay went on tour with the Yardbirds and has some unique early photographs of them. He also worked with Andrew Logue Oldham who managed the Animals. Unfortunately nobody paid their bills, and he tired of the the music scene.
Clay met Maggie at this time they were married shortly after and continue to inspire each other to this day. They were living in Ladbroke Grove and became involved with John Hopkins and International Times, The London Free School opened by Mohamed Ali, and the first Notting Hill Carnival, once again gaining trust in the black community.
This was the early 60s and having been shocked by apartheid in South Africa, Clay was appalled by the advertisements in the shops for rooms to let, saying no blacks or Irish need apply.
Clay worked voluntarily with Bruce Kendrick, a wonderful Methodist minister who founded the Notting Hill Housing Trust, later to become Shelter. He took photographs of the wretched conditions people were living in at the time. The Sunday Times published his pictures of an Irish family before and after they were given a flat in what is now one of the most desirable streets in the Grove. The mother of this family, so happy, with their new life together, sadly died soon after, Bruce said of exhaustion as, at last, she had been able to relax. This event made Clay & Maggie very supportive of the battle against racial prejudice, which Steve MacQueen’s film ‘Mangrove’ portrayed magnificently.
Bruce Bernard, the extraordinary picture editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, offered Clay a small but life-changing monthly retainer, along with Don MacCullin and Lord Snowden. Again Clay had a mentor, and the rent was paid. He had numerous commissions and support.
At this time Maggie introduced him to Alanah Coleman curator of Heal’s Gallery who went on to run the ICA, Institute of Contemporary Arts in Dover Street. An introduction to Paul Keeler, and David Medalla, led to Clay becoming the official photographer for Signals, the amazing gallery that was the hothouse for Kinetic art, Maggie and Clay’s daughter Sarah was born at this time a year after their wedding and was welcomed with excitement, her birth being announced in the signal’s news bulletin, he worked with them for 2 years culminating with filming Julio Le Parc winner of the Venice Biennalle.
Clay has contributed to many magazine articles, and advertising campaigns. A respected art director who commissioned a round – the – world shoot, beginning with a trip to New York on Concord, said that he could send Clay into the jungle without a camera, and he would still come back with the photographs.
Clay is the sole illustrator of some 20 books. The National Portrait Gallery has purchased many of Clay’s photographs, as have MOMA New York, the Tate Gallery, and other museums world wide, he has many valued private collectors.
He has recorded some of the best gardens in the world. His unique approach to light capturing the glories of dawn and dusk, has changed garden photography. His portraits and books of of roses are treasured and collected worldwide.
Clay and his wife Maggie collaborated on their book ‘ Fantastic Flowers ‘ which Maggie wrote. It took them from the quintessential English gardens to the steamy python ridden Australian rain forest. A glorious and monumental journey.
He was offered a chance to capture the essence of the Greek traditional way of life, which became ‘Vanishing Greece’ This was Clay and Maggie’s personal oddysey through the land of some of the most noble and hospitable people on earth.
Clay has included some of his Industrial work, which with his unique approach again bringing sensitivity of observation, unusual in this field of work.
This personal choice of work has resulted in an amazing journey of rediscovery that has produced an important record of the last 60 years.