Artwork, by Peter Campbell – review

By Gregory O'Brien In Arts, Books

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Maybe the fact typographer-artist Peter Campbell was born in a taxi in Wellington’s Mt Victoria Tunnel made him a little uncertain about car travel later in life. His most natural mode of travel was by foot, and his watercolour paintings were resolutely the work of a non-driver, an unhurried but purposeful pedestrian.

In recent decades, Campbell’s weekday routine took him by train from the London suburb of Southfields to his studio near King’s Cross Station. It was the few kilometres on foot, however, that settled the thinking, laid the day out before him. In London, he felt perfectly and incomparably at home. (I observed on one occasion, as the rest of the family was packing their bags for a summer holiday in rural France, Campbell was still trying to think up some excuse to stay put.)

It was in April 1937 he made his dramatic arrival into a dynamic, smart and socially minded family. His father, an educationalist, went on to become director of the Department of Education and his mother was a founder of the New Zealand Family Planning Association. His were high-achieving genes. A polymath from boyhood, he studied geology and philosophy at Victoria University before falling in with the stellar crew of writers and artists working on the New Zealand School Journal, where his numerous illustrative assignments between 1955 and 1960 included a memorable suite of drawings for Maurice Duggan’s novel Falter Tom and the Water Boy (1956).

It was while apprenticed to printer-poet Denis Glover at the Wakefield Press that he first glimpsed his vocation as a typographer and designer. By the early 1960s, he and his wife, Win, had transplanted to London, where he became a designer for BBC Publications and later a freelancer. Among his design output were books by Kenneth Clark, Alistair Cooke, David Attenborough and Alan Bennett; and catalogues to accompany exhibitions by Goya, Giacometti and Klee.

But it is for his role on the London Review of Books – the LRB – that he will be most remembered. From its inception in 1979, he was fundamental in establishing and maintaining the identity and character of what became one of the great literary periodicals of recent times. His role here was polymathic as well: he was not only typographer and cover artist/designer but also arts writer and columnist. I suspect he was also a crucial part of the social glue that kept the whole thing boisterous, brilliant and functional.

In an era of hectoring, attention-seeking design, Campbell was on the side of the well-considered, the elegant and the nuanced. Seeing one of his LRB designs on a newsagent’s stand was like bumping into  a concert violinist at the Big Day Out. As the watercolours in Artwork demonstrate, he was a visual poet of interiors – shelves, sinks, cupboards, desks and tabletops. He was also good at refrigerators and clothes driers, and I think bicycles appealed because they looked to him like typographical assemblages. His works imparted a sense of the many ways the domestic interior, with its accumulation of likely and unlikely objects, was actively involved in the emotional lives of its inhabitants. He wrote to me after a visit: “Friends’ houses are like picture frames – something to put them in when you think about them.”

The interior of the London Review Bookshop, just down the road from the British Museum, was another of Campbell’s designs. (Incidentally, at the time of writing, Artwork was top of that shop’s bestseller list.) Standing in the shop is itself an education – before you even pick up a book. Signage, shelving, the colour scheme – here is an “articulate” room, if ever there was one.

Campbell’s writings about art for the LRB were collected in 2008 in At …, a book that underlines what a gorgeous stylist and enlivening, broad-minded critic he was. As Bill Manhire writes in his gem of a foreword to Artwork, Campbell’s personal taste “was not subject to fixed or fashionable curricula … Perhaps that is why his talk was always lucid yet asymmetrical, full of human drift. As in his LRB columns, he made things vivid without raising his voice.”

On trips back to New Zealand, Campbell painted landscapes of Wilton and the Kapiti Coast, but the well-populated parks and watery skies of London were his most natural habitat (and, when rendered in watercolour, offered subtle backgrounds upon which to float the LRB’s masthead and contents). When City Gallery Wellington first approached Campbell about an exhibition, he doubted his body of work was “coherent enough to make a show”. He thought it “a nice idea, but I think I must cry off”. Thankfully, he reversed that decision a few months before his death in  October 2011. Not long after, curator Abby Cunnane was installed in his Southfields house, sorting through many hundreds of watercolours, selecting those for the exhibition back in New Zealand.

The primary purpose of his LRB cover designs was, as the magazine’s contributing editor Jeremy Harding writes, “to extend some form of welcome to the world”. That was something Campbell managed marvellously. In Artwork, as in the forthcoming exhibition, his images are cast in yet another role: as a farewell to that same world – a gracious and graceful valediction, a lingering presence, never vanishing from sight.

ARTWORK, by Peter Campbell, with essays by Bill Manhire and Jeremy Harding (LRB/Pro le, $60); ARTWORK: PETER CAMPBELL, City Gallery Wellington, February 18-April 21; Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, July 6-August 10.

Gregory O’Brien is a writer, poet and artist whose books include A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal and A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy.

More by Gregory O'Brien

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