Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Art books: Peter Campbell - Artwork


"One mark of an artist is that he or she alerts us to a world. Modest and wholly without pretension this Campbell repeatedly does. Unsurprisingly he was a lovely man." Alan Bennett on Artwork by Peter Campbell

"Dogs.I thought it was the dog I wanted pictures of, then I found it was dog plus shadows and dog plus spots plus green grass. But I didn't know that until I had taken the pictures. Snapshots are a way of thinking after you have seen something, otherwise you could just have a camera with no film."
Peter Campbell, "Art Lessons", in London Review of Books, 13 August 2020

The second extract is from a lovely piece by Peter Campbell, a letter to "Anna" (Anna Fender) that combines a selection of photographs of Italy with the "art lessons" of the title: his "notes [...] about what I looked at and noticed". He repeatedly emphasises the subjectivity of art and perception: "You would take different pictures and see different things in them". One of the photos, of a Dalmatian walking on grass that is broken up by the shadows of trees branching out, prompts the above observation. 

In a conversational and seemingly effortless tone, Campbell walks Anna and subsequent readers through his snapshots and the thoughts they spark, taking in themes such as composition, architecture, mark-making, light and shadow, abstraction, pattern, and art history along the way. The result is a unique lecture on art appreciation, his own philosophy of art. 

Peter Campbell was a Renaissance man (designer, artist, typographer, critic, children's author, amateur botanist) and a vital part of the London Review of Books from when it was first published until his death in 2011. He was the LRB's designer and art critic and created the cover artwork for every issue over a period of nearly twenty years, mainly in watercolour. The last one was of a view from his window when he was dying: a fox passing by in the street. Apart from the title no text was superimposed on this final cover image.

The letter to Anna prompted us to buy this book of Campbell's illustrations and designs and a set of postcards featuring work by Campbell and other artists, including Cressida Bell. This website was created to catalogue his work and make it available to the public. Both the book and the online archive are a treasure trove of his wide-ranging subjects and styles.
I am a big fan of Maira Kalman's work, and while Peter Campbell's illustrations are often more restrained, I find the two artists share a certain whimsy and wit, and both elevate the mundane and ordinary. There is a playfulness to Campbell's work that, together with his deeply caring view of the world, makes the viewer appreciate the beauty of the everyday in new and often surprising ways. You might even fall in love with your washing machine.

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