Late-blooming careers

As the Cuban artist Carmen Herrera enjoys a retrospective at a London art gallery at the age of 95, we look at others late-blooming careers, from Daniel Defoe to Frank McCourt.

Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her.  Photo Courtesy Todd Heisler/The New York Times
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She's been called the discovery of the decade. Art might be as prone to hype as any other creative discipline, but this time the hyperbole is justified. Carmen Herrera's intensely colourful, geometric paintings are radiant, abstract and completely engrossing - and it seems almost a mystery that they've never been discovered before.

The Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, you see, is 95 years old and, despite painting for more than 60 years, didn't sell one single piece of her work until she was a sprightly 89. Still, better late than never. Herrera is now enjoying huge praise for a high-profile retrospective at the Lisson Gallery in London.

This isn't, however, some patronising pat on the head from a gallery eager to hit the headlines. Herrera deserves to be there - and she's enjoying every minute of it. "I love it - I'm lapping it up," she told The Observer newspaper recently. "But every time they say something about me they say, 'she's 95'. I mean - really!"

A lot of the exhibited work dates back to the 1980s, although Herrera says her productivity is still "pretty good, considering I'm 95 years old". Even so, pieces such as Blue With Orange, from 1984, were created when she was approaching her 70th birthday. There's the sense that, freed from the commercial pressure that comes with success at an earlier age, Herrera was able to follow her own path until everybody else caught up. And she's not the first to benefit from a late-blooming career in the arts.

Although Herrera left Cuba years ago, it's tempting to suggest there's something in the water there that encourages and rewards longevity. Her compatriots in Buena Vista Social Club enjoyed the most staggering and unexpected rise to fame in the late 1990s, thanks to the recording of their music by Ry Cooder and a subsequent documentary by Wim Wenders. The songs harked back to the glorious Cuban music scene of the 1950s, and made international stars, finally, of 90-year-old Compay Segundo, the pianist Rubén González (who celebrated his 80th birthday by releasing a stream of albums to capitalise on his new-found fame) and most notably, Ibrahim Ferrer.

In his late sixties, the popular singer was a comparative youngster - but he made the most of the publicity. In 1999, he decided to release his first solo album as a 72-year-old, which somewhat amusingly won him a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist. He didn't stop there, recording with Damon Albarn's Gorillaz and touring incessantly around the world right up to his death in 2005 at the age of 78.

Ferrer was very much making up for lost time - and despite (or perhaps because of) music's obsession with gifted youth, sometimes gnarly singer-songwriters sound fresh and exciting simply because they're not chasing the latest sounds. This was certainly the case with Seasick Steve - an ex-itinerant hobo pensioner who had recorded some tracks to soothe his mind after a frightening heart attack. Somehow, they found their way to the "right" people at the BBC, he played a rough-and-ready live performance on New Year's Eve 2006 using a three-stringed guitar, and the rest was history. Today, his tours sell out, he's a huge festival draw and his albums of stomping blues are nominated for major awards.

But should it be such a surprise that some artists come to public attention later in life? Certainly in literature, where the kind of insight and experience of life's peaks and troughs is cherished, one would expect a whole raft of interesting writing from those of advancing years. The problem is, even the established writers still at the coalface well into their seventies (such as Philip Roth) are or were prone to the law of diminishing returns - which makes publishers reticent to take a chance on a new author of pensionable age who may not be so keen to embark on a promotional tour and a slew of interviews. But sometimes, when they do, the results are spectacular.

Frank McCourt was a retired New York City teacher in the mid-1990s when he decided to write a memoir of his experiences growing up in a Limerick slum. He did have some idea of how to structure it - his day job was to tease out the best work possible from his creative writing students. But even he couldn't have possibly predicted the best-selling phenomenon that Angela's Ashes would become, selling millions of copies across the world, winning McCourt the Pulitzer Prize and becoming an Alan Parker film. He's now known as the father of the "misery memoir" - it was just a shame his age meant he succumbed to cancer and meningitis at 78 last year. It meant he wasn't able to turn his extraordinary talents to writing a novel, which was his real hope.

Of course, history points to other late starters in literature: Daniel Defoe finished Robinson Crusoe just before his 60th birthday and the celebrated childrens' author Mary Wesley didn't publish The Camomile Lawn until she was 70. And earlier this year, Myrrha Stanford-Smith hit the headlines when her debut The Great Lie - the first of a planned trilogy of adventures in the world of Shakespeare and Marlowe - was published. Stanford-Smith is 82. All of which prompts the question: does it actually matter what age you are? These are heart-warming stories of late success, sure, but when you look at Herrera's paintings, listen to Buena Vista Social Club or read Frank McCourt's work, you're not thinking "that's good... for a pensioner". You're enjoying their incredible work. In fact, the only people who should be taking notice of these artists' ages are their peers who still feel the creative urge. As George Eliot said: "It's never too late to be who you might have been."