Dyslexic who made millions but just wants to paint
CLIVE HEMSLEY could barely read or write when he left school. He says he “avoided” all education except
CLIVE HEMSLEY could barely read or write when he left school. He says he “avoided” all education except the one subject he enjoyed — art.
Despite this, he went on to make millions after setting up two advertising agencies and even tried his luck as an inventor.
He also owns one of the finest homes in Henley — Longlands House in Hart Street, which used to be Brakspear’s offices but he returned to domestic use.
Now, at the age of 65, Mr Hemsley has stepped down from the business in order to return to his first great love — painting.
He has already completed more than 200 portraits of dogs for Henley Standard readers but plans to have his own studio where he can teach as well as paint.
“I still don’t know the alphabet and I need a calculator for times tables but I can visualise and I can paint," he laughs.
Mr Hemsley was born in Reading but grew up in Somerset with his parents, twin brother Michael and sister Barbara. His father was managing director of a heating company.
At secondary school, there were 50 children in a class and he paid no attention in lessons.
He recalls: “I avoided education because I didn’t know what they were talking about and the only thing I could do was art. I couldn’t read or write and I hardly can now.
“Luckily, my mum got me on to the foundation course at Taunton Art College because she knew the teacher. This was five days before my 15th birthday and because you were supposed to be 18 before going on the course, I ended up repeating it for three years!”
He went on to Coventry College of Art and struggled to make ends meet with various part-time jobs.
Mr Hemsley recalls: “In those days art wasn’t academic so there weren’t any grants. I had no support so I had to find a way of surviving. It wasn’t a nice time and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
“I slept in a wooden shed with glass panes and a dirty old mattress. I had no water or electricity and slept next to my scooter on the end of a terraced house. When the Indian family in the house had curry the powder would come through my walls!
“At weekends I used to stay in the art department, which had heating and a shower. I’d take some bread and cheese in with me to eat. It was horrible. I was living rough and struggling with dyslexia which I didn’t even know I had.”
He worked as an ice-cream man and also as a sign writer, although the latter was complicated by his dyslexia. Once he wrote the sign for a restaurant called “Chinese House” in return for free chicken chow mein for a month but made a spelling mistake which wasn’t spotted until the sign was already up.
He says: “I remember looking up and thinking that something was missing. It said ’Chinese Hose’. I never did get that month’s food after that but the sign stayed up for many years!”
Despite coming out of college with just one qualification in typography, Mr Hemsley was given his first proper job as a junior paste-up artist at an advertising agency in London.
He says: “My dad got me the job. The agency dealt with my dad’s account and they paid me out of petty cash. It was £1 a day which even back then was not very much.
“Then I noticed that the guys coming in to sell the advertising space didn’t really know anything about design but they could tell a joke and all had a company car and nice suits.
“I thought ’I’m on the wrong side of the fence’, so I went for a job selling space. I found my niche in the electronics market, which was booming at that time.”
He says he succeeded thanks to his artistic skills and ability to think on his feet, which meant he could sketch out ideas for clients on the spot.
It was while doing some brochure work for a company in the West Country in the Seventies that he met his wife Inez.
The couple moved to Rotherfield Greys in 1984 and had two children, Nick and Claire.
Claire, now 35, runs a PR company in Fulham and is married with two children of her own and Nick, 33, runs Sky Hot Shots, an aerial filming company.
Nick was diagnosed with dyslexia at four when he was a pupil at Rupert House School in Henley.
Mr Hemsley says: “When Nick was diagnosed I realised I was like that as well, so I was 36 before I realised my problem. Luckily I was at a stage where I was confident so I didn’t give a monkey’s. I’m not shy to ask how a word is spelled or how to add up. I don’t know my times tables but I can work it out.”
Mr Hemsley set up advertising and PR agency Newstech in Bell Street, Henley in 1979.
“Going from absolute poverty to making my first few shillings was good for the confidence,” he says with understatement as he sold the company only a few years later for “a seven-figure sum”.
He then founded Billings, a marketing communications agency serving the electronics and technology industries with clients including Samsung and Panasonic.
The company has grown into a worldwide business and now has offices in Munich and San Francisco.
Mr Hemsley sold his share in the company three years ago so he could take a “back seat” and concentrate on his painting.
He says: “I have been lucky and most of it was sheer ignorance. Knowing a subject well is a key factor but being content in yourself and having a good family around you is much more important. I’ve always been an ad man really, it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I’m an ideas man and I can visualise.
“When you are a creative director you tend to do most of your work in the evening or early hours. I didn’t do any major work in the day!
“I was driven by fear and hunger because of my student days of having nothing. I’m not unique, there’s a generation of people like me who yearn to own their own property. I’ve made so many mistakes.”
When he found himself with money to spend for the first time, Mr Hemsley tried out a new hobby, flying helicopters.
He visited Farnborough air show and then purchased a Robinson R22 helicopter before studying for his flying qualifications.
He says: “Getting the licence was hard for someone who doesn’t know the alphabet! The papers were multiple choice so after I had taken it four times I could remember the questions I’d got wrong before and chose the other answer. Basically I got my licence by default!”
He would often get lost on his flights. Once, on the way back from Kent, he ran out of fuel and was forced to land on the Fair Mile in Henley. He had to walk to the Bell petrol station nearby to buy fuel before hitching a lift back to theÂ helicopter.
He says: “I remember the guy’s face when he watched me fill it up!”
One another occasion he flew to Lyme Regis for a holiday and landed his helicopter in a car park.
“I had a 20p ticket in the windscreen,” he says. “I got in a lot of trouble when the coastguard came up and wanted to know why I had landed there.”
Mr Hemsley had owned the helicopter for four years when he crashed it.
He says: “The neighbours used to complain about the noise when I was flying in to Rotherfield Greys so I tried to come in side-on where I wouldn’t have to fly over their houses.
“Then one time I got into a vortex and came down from 500ft. This was behind the Lamb at Satwell and the skids broke off and the blades came out. It was classified as a heavy landing but really I wrote it off. After that I decided to get a boat instead!”
Despite his success in business, Mr Hemsley says he lost more money than he made.
One example was the power-assisted luggage he invented after his mother died from a heart attack at Heathrow Airport in 2003.
He said: “This was about 10 years ago and I ploughed everything I had into it. I lost £2 million — the development costs alone were in the millions. I was driven by emotion.”
His latest project of painting is a much safer bet.
Mr Hemsley says: “I’ve always painted but during the last three years, when I was taking a back seat with Billings, I thought I’d start doing it more professionally.
“I lobbied for a client of mine to get a CBE and suggested he should get a portrait done to celebrate. He turned round and said: ’you’re an artist, you do it’.
“I found it very challenging — portraits are the most difficult subject matter and the ultimate challenge but when I’d finished I thought, ’my God, I can really paint’.”
That portrait of Stephen Phipson led to more commissions until he had an unfortunate incident while walking his two Labradors — Humphrey and Kipling — in Mill Meadows that made him change his subjects from people to animals.
He recalls: “I was walking Humphrey when a lady gave him food and got nipped. I said as compensation I would draw her dog, a poodle-cross.”
The woman was so impressed that she wrote to the Henley Standard.
Soon afterwards, the paper commissioned him to paint six free dog portraits as a reader offer.
Mr Hemsley says: “We had 78 entries in the end and I did them all. The following year was the same again and now I’m up to 275 Â portraits.”
He has never charged for a picture.
“It has probably cost me several thousand pounds in canvas but that doesn’t matter to me,” he says.
“Creating an ad campaign for a multinational is worth a hundred times more than a painting but handing it over a painting of a dog to an old lady and watching her cry with joy is worth a hundred times more to me than any commercial.
“I’ve had so many nice letters from dog owners whose pets have passed away and they’ve been truly touched because I’ve captured them.
“An oil painting comes alive like nothing else. All I can do is interpret what the photograph is so if it’s good lighting it can be a good portrait.
“A lot of the owners are ladies. Sometimes their husbands have died so they have replaced the man with a dog — you can’t blame them really!”
Mr Hemsley is also planning to sell Longlands House, the Grade II listed Georgian home he moved to in 2010 and restored.
“I feel now is the time to downsize,” he says. “Inez and I want to find something smaller but still in the middle of Henley.
“My goal is to get planning permission for my stable in Rotherfield Greys so I can turn it into a studio big enough to teach art.
“I am very happy, especially now I have the dog painting down to a fine art! I thank God every day for my dogs and family and for having a life of contentment after handling Â dyslexia.
“I’m very grateful to Inez for putting up with my frustrations and mistakes. I still laugh sometimes when I think I still don’t know the alphabet — how the hell did I run an ad agency for so long?”