Peter Campbell

Mary-Kay Wilmers

The fox on the cover of this issue is walking past Peter Campbell’s house in South London, the house (he wrote about it in the LRB in September) where he and his wife had lived since 1963. Peter died – in that house – on 25 October and the picture on the cover is the last one he painted.

Peter was always at the heart of the LRB. He designed the first issue in October 1979 – a 28-page insert inside European editions of the New York Review; redesigned it six months later after the papers’ divorce; and in 1997 re-redesigned it. But saying that gives no sense of his importance to the paper. As much as the original editors and the founder, Karl Miller, Peter shaped the LRB. Unlike us, he never lost his temper. More adjusted than most to his own wants and necessities, and so better able to accommodate other people’s, he was an exemplary person to work with.

He was born in New Zealand in 1937 (in a taxi in a tunnel: he never told us that) and had two sisters – often a help to a boy. At university in Wellington, he did ‘the kind of degree in which you are allowed to mix subjects’ and spent his first year reading philosophy, geology and English: ‘I never quite got a grip on these subjects,’ he said in a review of George Landow’s Hypertext in 1992, ‘but the memory of what it is like to do philosophy or geology remains; and when I read about debates that are going on in these areas I believe I know, even if I cannot follow it all, what kind of row or celebration is taking place.’ There are people whom getting a grip doesn’t suit, who don’t want to be confined. One can honour the world in depth or across a wide range and there were few aspects of the world that Peter didn’t wish to honour.

Dandelions: ‘Weeds have only a passing hegemony and must expect a modest future role.’ Rainbows: ‘If the rainbow is something you assumed you understood, humility follows on the unsurprising discovery that things which gave Aristotle … serious problems are lying about in your own head, like unopened mail waiting to be dealt with.’ Bodies and clothes: ‘Bodies differ from place to place and race to race, from person to person and from fat times to lean. Clothes battle against these differences. They help bodies to conform to norms of what is decent, impressive, dignified, lovely, erotic or charming.’ Cycling: ‘Asker Jukendrup, a Dutch expert on carbohydrate and fat metabolism, uses the cheeseburger as a unit to describe calorific intake. Inputs equivalent to 28 cheeseburgers a day fuel the rider during a mountain stage.’ Ducks: ‘It seemed that the drake was struggling with a long pink worm; I remembered a piece of research that was in the press a year or so ago: not many birds have a penis but the stifftail duck does.’ Doors: ‘The door to Number 10 domesticates politics because it is commonplace in its look and scale: we know what it is like to stand on such a threshold, we too do things behind closed doors.’ Horses: ‘Equestrian monuments give short generals dignity. Once mounted, Frederic Remington’s scruffy cowboys and Indians become brothers to the riders on the Parthenon frieze.’ Port Sunlight: ‘I know of no other place where I feel such a snob and where snobbishness feels such a thin emotion.’ Finally, a lament: ‘We know (roughly) what Maisie knew, but not what Maisie wore.’

He graduated in 1958 with a philosophy degree but a couple of years into his course he’d already become a compositor’s apprentice: ‘I was an inveterate picker-up and putter-down of books,’ he recalled in the review of Hypertext, ‘because I was interested in how they looked. I got to care more about how they were put together and organised than about their content.’ He paid for the month-long sea voyage from Wellington with money he’d earned as a typographer and illustrator, and arrived in London in 1960. He found work at BBC Publications designing schools pamphlets. The ship he’d travelled on, MS Willem Ruys, was later renamed Achille Lauro – that was another thing he didn’t tell us.

Karl Miller and I got to know him a few years later when he’d begun to design the BBC books that accompanied the famous television series of the late 1960s and early 1970s – Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Life on Earth – and we were working on the Listener, which published the scripts. (The Listener’s circulation rose by 16,000 with the first Clark lecture and dipped by 16,000 after the last.) BBC Publications was based in Marylebone High Street and the Listener in what is now the Langham Hotel. Peter must have walked over to see Karl about the pictures we might reproduce in the text of Clark’s first lecture. He had no great liking for corporate life; he preferred to get around, talk to people, find out what they did and how they did it. He got on well too with the grandee lecturers and pontificators – even the supercilious Clark, who was won over when Peter went to see him in his flat in the Albany and recognised an oil painting by the Punch illustrator Charles Keene. He confirmed Clark in his new regard for him when he pointed out – had Clark not known or was he just impressed that a man from New Zealand might know too? – that St Paul’s was built on a Gothic plan and went on to describe the figures in a photograph of Roman ruins as ‘Piranesi people’.

It wasn’t long before Karl asked Peter to write for the paper and in the late 1960s he wrote his first piece, about Claes Oldenburg. Looking for but failing to find that issue in an untidy stack of old Listeners, I found three from 1972, fairly late in Karl’s reign. Like all Peter’s pieces about exhibitions they take you with him into the gallery. The first is about an exhibition of photographs at the Whitechapel (‘When a glum, derisive, sulky or tired face looks out at you, remember it is the photographer he is seeing – not you’); the second about a print-making show at Colnaghi’s (‘Whistler … produced simpler and simpler etchings until his colleagues in the Etching Club thought that an adjustment should be made to prices to allow for the lack of labour in his plates’); the third about painting in the age of Charles I, an exhibition at the Tate: ‘These portraits,’ Peter wrote, ‘are triumphs of an international style: a reminder that artists could be contracted to courts as film stars once were to their studios – and as jealously guarded.’

Peter didn’t like everything he saw, but mostly he avoided writing about work that didn’t accord with his taste or his sense of things; if he couldn’t find a reason to be interested he wrote about something else – another exhibition or the trees on the street. A comprehensive show of 1930s art was the first exhibition he wrote about in the LRB; it was, he felt, misconceived: ‘an attempt at total recall’ that reduced the works on display ‘to the status of evidence’. But once the point had been made there was no further reason to mope:

One could say that the time has come … honestly to enjoy the shine on the rump of a Munnings horse, the discretion of a Nicholson relief, the fresh-as-paint prettiness of a Susie Cooper teapot, the housewifely amateurishness of an Omega Workshops painted table, the wit of a Shell poster: to chuck exclusive theories overboard. The makers could not; perhaps historians now can. Fifty years should be about the time it takes for the intellectual scaffolding around art to decay, fall away, be dismantled.

He tells you things about painting and how it’s done that no one else thinks to tell you – of an Alice Neel nude self-portrait, for example: ‘Her face is rather tight around the mouth, as a painter’s face can be when reaching a decision about just how a detail seen in the mirror can be put down with the next stroke’ – or maybe has noticed: ‘It comes to you that when you can see a sitter’s feet … the view is wide enough to let you in.’ And why sometimes you don’t want to be let in: ‘Looking at her work in displays like these at the Tate,’ he says of Louise Bourgeois, ‘one feels to a degree excluded from what made her own work important to her. At times you are grateful. Some of the objects would like to enter your imagination by a back door that you might think it better to keep shut.’

He has his own ways too of making sense of artists’ trajectories, the contexts and constraints of their careers – Bourgeois’s or Titian’s.

Bourgeois at one time or another met, often knew well, the great artists of her time … While they pursued single ways of making art – and were told that they stood on the threshold of a future in which modernism would advance with an assurance to match that of the thousand years of art that lay behind them – Bourgeois was playing Martha in the kitchen, cooking up art that seemed to be the work of a not-quite-in-tune follower of a whole string of them, but which now looks much more contrary.

On the one hand, Martha; on the other, the Doge:

It is hard now to imagine the relationship between a painter made independent by great men competing for his services, and a ruler entranced by the artist’s ability to give substance to the notion of embodied power – in images, moreover, which are from the same hand as those which show Mary assumed into the vault of heaven and the adventures of mythical heroes. Whatever the reality of these relationships, the fact that the painter had something of great value in his gift makes sense of anecdotes in which king and painter treat each other as equals – the one a real ruler, the other a ruler in the kingdom of representation.

‘The finish is smooth, precise and brilliant,’ he wrote of Ingres’s portraits. ‘The brush-strokes are hardly visible and you have to look closely to see how the paint was applied. It is as though these people had been expensively transformed by some cosmetic process into Ingres-flesh.’ He was unusual in getting equal pleasure from the world and from its representation; from understanding Ingres-flesh and the anatomy of the stifftail duck. In the same way I imagine that he got equal pleasure from writing about pictures and from looking at them.

It is hard to believe that soon there will be paintings that aren’t by Peter on the cover. It’s only now when we explain to other people how the covers worked that we realise how spoiled we were. From time to time Peter would come into the office with a batch of watercolours under his arm, three or four in a big folder – ‘I’ve got some covers for you’ – and go away before we looked at them. Usually there was one in the batch that Peter knew we wouldn’t like: a figure, often a woman, often blonde with an air of the 1950s about her, almost always half-asleep. Sometimes it wasn’t a woman but a man, say, with a flower in his hand, and those too we had trouble with. Peter would bring in the original drawing and a mock-up with words from a previous issue to show where the new words should go. Understandably, he didn’t like the words – not the words we had chosen: any words at all – and there was an unstated war between covers (like the present one) that couldn’t accommodate words and covers that were all words – as sometimes they had to be. Every other Thursday afternoon we would choose the cover for the next issue. The considerations were simple: season (no beaches in winter, no bare trees in summer); general appropriateness (no ice-cream sundaes in wartime); and how many pieces had to be signalled on the cover. Sometimes a cover would hang around for a year and suddenly find favour. There’s one in the drawer now: a yellow coach parked at night beside a dark forest. I find it scary and keep taking it out and putting it back. The only literal connection I remember between a cover and the content was in an issue with the piece by Jenny Diski that eventually became her book Skating to Antarctica: Peter did a wonderful painting of the moon in its successive movements, rising and falling over a polar landscape. That may have been a pure coincidence (nobody can remember) and in any case the piece advertised on the rubric – it was the first issue of 1997 – was Alan Bennett’s ‘What I did in 1996.’ One thing Bennett didn’t do was skate to Antarctica.