Artists and Illustrators – Jeffery Camp

Artists and Illustrators – Jeffery Camp
On the walls of Jeffery Camp’s studio are landscapes by William Gillies, his teacher at Edinburgh College of Art, pictures of fruit by Euan Uglow and a map of London, the latter pinned up perhaps as much an object of affection as a guide to the streets. In the centre of the room, a white clay sculpture of a woman on a horse is in progress. Next to the easel, there is a large plans chest full of drawings and watercolours, proof of the years spent on the look out. Sifting through sketches of London’s towers, bridges and domes, Sussex cliffs, lovers and viper’s bluegloss, one comes across the compositions and details that have been used to make up his paintings. Drawing is at the root of his work. It is a surprise when he pulls out the central drawer to reveal tubes of oil paint and flips over a hinged plywood board on which he places his palette. This store gives him the means to begin painting at a moments notice.

Jeffery Camp is seventy five this year. One of his earliest memories of making art is taking clay from cliffs near Lowestoft and making sculpture on the beach. He is working with clay again. His bronze, “Blue Man” looks as if it might be found – if one was very lucky – cast up by the morning tide. The Etruscans made handles like this; my fingers itch to close around the blue man’s torso, to lift and feel the weight of him. Over the years he has painted many men and women that have battled with gravity and overcome it; gliding over the ocean or flying like wingless angels above the town. The “Blue Man” is more vulnerable and primitive than they are.

A recent exhibition at Browse and Darby, in Cork Street, included a few pictures from the 70’s and 80’s. Although not a retrospective, it provided an opportunity to consider his more recent paintings in the light of his earlier work.

Looking at “Beachy Head – night” (1973), it takes time for the eye to adjust to the close tones. The longer one stares, the lighter the cliffs and sky become; the stars emerge from the mist and the vastness within the picture grows colder. An icy wind creates strange patterns on the surface of the sea, pulls at the clouds and stipples the picture with goose bumps. The picture is big enough to step into and the lozenge shape encourages one to stretch out ones arms to the corners and fly. The space within the picture is painted as a bird might imagine it.

In “Beachy Head – take off” (1977), a man in a hang-glider is shown launching himself from the cliffs. Camp seems to be searching for a more direct way of flying into the painting; one no longer has to turn one self into a bird but can identify with the intrepid pilot. During the 80’s he produced a series of figures falling, sometimes flying, through the air. The imagined space within the picture changed into the inner space of dreams. His characters dived through fiery air into the Thames, tumbled through the pearly dusk into the sea or, as lovers, arched and soared above London’s skyline. The figures seemed to be in transition, moving from one state to another. They fetched up in the world that the pictures currently describe. This world is at the same time deeply rooted in the specifics of day to day life and the vehicle through which an inner light is transmitted. The tension between the urge to ascend in spirit to the heavens and the unflinching looking at things as they are that roots the body to the earth is a common human axis that winds the mainspring of art.

In the small painting “Beachy Head Gull” – begun in 1990 and finished in 1997 – the use of sawdust in the paint draws attention to the physicality of the paint stuff and provides a surface which allows for the delicate scumbling of the light reflected from the sea. At times the sea looks unimaginably distant, at others it looms up close. The shape of the flying gull is mimicked by the diver. This repetition of shape is often used by Camp. In a picture of people jumping off Brighton pier, the shape of flailing arms is taken up by a swooping gull wing, in other Beachy Head pictures, two faces side by side form the 3 shape that is taken up by the ubiquitous gulls (and is further repeated in the shapes of the distant waves). The idea of flight is branded onto the picture. The world of his spirit is pressed into the mould – the shapes and rhythms – of the everyday world.

When I was a student at the Slade I remember asking Jeffery Camp how he would paint the view out of the window that I had just begun to work with. He said that he might take the springing arcs of some wrought iron that we could see in the distance and relate them to the bowed branches of horse chestnut in the foreground. Once that theme had been established it became possible to see the curved edges of the lawns and the aerodynamic body work of the cars parked below us as material with which one could construct the picture.

“Big Ben” (1997) is painted on a round board covered with canvas. The canvas is stuck onto the board, a technique known as marouflage. The shape of the support is repeated in numerous tiny circles; the rain drops, the lights, the clock and the sun. The vertical lines from the reflections of the lamps and the towers are juxtaposed with the slanting raindrops. No matter how familiar the subject matter, Camp’s formal invention and observation make us consider it afresh.

In “Falling Feather” (1997), the curve of the feather is played off against the lines of the girl’s limbs and breasts. The shapes of the clouds continue the movements within the picture. The opacity of the blues and greys in the sea and sky emphasise the orange coloration of the girl’s skin and the delicacy of the light falling across her body. As in all the lozenge shaped pictures, the verticals and horizontals provide stability, a strong foundation on which the remainder of the picture is built. Perched high above the sea – jackdaws bathing in the cliff top puddles behind her – the girl seems to both transcend and accept the world around her. There even seems to be a distant echo of the Icarus myth in the falling feather, a warning against straying from the balance exemplified by the picture.

When I mention Icarus, Jeffery shows more courtesy than enthusiasm. The existence of feathers, floating in the wind every day above the cliffs are reason enough to paint them.

He has written extensively about his own and other peoples art in his books “Draw” and “Paint”. These books combine practical advice on materials with a guide to the breadth of possibilities within reach of brush and pencil. The sales – several hundred thousand – are indicative of the pleasure and excitement that he manages to convey. He is an advocate of copying other people’s work as a way of learning about art, an approach unfashionable at the time his first book “Draw” was published but one that, with the support of David Hockney (who contributed the forward to the book), has become influential in art education.

We finish off our time together with a stroll round the National Gallery, among the pictures that he has studied – and copied – for most of his life. His “favourite picture” is Piero’s Baptism. Writing about it in “Paint” he says “Leave it to feeling and see what you find……….The vision of God standing in a stream, imagined as in a dream. The figure in daylight, in clear air, alive.” His copies from the picture reproduced alongside the text eloquently express feelings about the picture that remain outside the realm of words.

I look at the beak of the dove of the holy spirit that hangs directly above, and echoes the small trickle of water pouring from the dish in the Baptist’s hand, I think about birds as messengers in Jeffery’s paintings then begin to forget my theories and the fact that I have an article to write.

On my way home I remember some of the many images that I have seen in Jeffery’s studio – snow outside a window, charcoal drawings of lovers taking a break , men on horseback , apples and pears – and leaf through the catalogue of his show. My ideas about his art recede further into the background as the sensuality of colour, paint on canvass and pictorial structure begin to bite. Ideas about art after all, are a little like diving boards, you get on them in order to jump off.