Peter Campbell

Peter Campbell was the resident designer and art critic at London Review of Books until his death in 2011. A website showing some of his work, including many of the covers he made for the LRB, is now online.

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell, 13 August 2020

Dear Anna,

Here are some snapshots of Italy. Long ago, when you were still almost young enough to have a use for one, I promised you a proper picture book. Sorry I didn’t cough up; take these as a kind of apology.

You would take different pictures and see different things in them. These notes are about what I looked at and noticed. Looking and noticing are not, of course, the only reasons...

Memories of New Zealand

Peter Campbell, 1 December 2011

Pitt Street in Wellington runs just below the crest of a ridge. It is steep. When you look up to the houses, you don’t see much more than roofs. To reach the front gates you take paths that angle up the ten-foot clay bank that was cut when the road was made. The land seems less stable than the timber-framed houses that sit like ships on a sea of clay and rotten rock that after a week...

Am I intruding? Open Windows

Peter Campbell, 3 November 2011

The motif of the open window in Romantic painting was ‘inaugurated’, according to Sabine Rewald, by two sepia drawings of his studio windows with the River Elbe beyond by Caspar David Friedrich. The drawings are exact in their rendering of casements, panes and the gradation of light on bare walls, and careful in their delineation of the distant riverbank.

At Tate Britain: John Martin

Peter Campbell, 20 October 2011

I begin to write about John Martin: Apocalypse (at Tate Britain until 15 January) before looking at the pictures. Maybe, I say to myself, if I set memories of Martin’s pictures against the words in the catalogue (Tate, £19.99), if I learn what he achieved in more than a century and a half of (variable) success, I’ll find that we owe his memory some kind of apology. Maybe, and...

At the Royal Academy: Degas

Peter Campbell, 6 October 2011

Until 11 December the exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement fills most of the main galleries at the Royal Academy. As well as paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures by Degas himself, there are photographic panoramas of Paris that share the long horizontal shape of Degas’s pictures of dancers in the rehearsal room; there are also examples of the photographic...

At Home

Peter Campbell, 22 September 2011

My wife and I arrived in England from New Zealand in 1960. Out of the window of the boat train from Southampton the backs of houses built in grimy stock brick were our introduction to London’s domestic architecture. We saw mile after mile of terraced houses, dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It must have been a couple of years later that I bought a copy of London the Unique...

Painting and illustration are broad, overlapping provinces. Paintings are (usually) made for walls, illustrations are (usually) printed on paper. There is no need to be pedantic. Illustrations don’t have to have an accompanying text: a Beerbohm caricature, a Rowlandson party at Vauxhall, a Picasso neoclassical nymph and satyr have enough story in them to count as illustrations....

Although pictures are, on the whole, reproduced in formats chosen to suit layouts, there are exceptions aimed at protecting the status of the image. Some are licensed for reproduction only if uncropped or without lettering superimposed. In serious monographs the general rule is that drawings should be reproduced the same size as the originals, or, if necessary, smaller. While there is no...

At Tate Modern: Miró

Peter Campbell, 14 July 2011

Painters born into the sunset of Impressionism who were fated to have long lives saw a procession of styles emerge before they died. Some they invented, others they took up to play their own games with. Joan Miró’s naive realism was transformed by Surrealism and his art later drifted in and out of abstraction. The Miró exhibition at Tate Modern (until 11 September) begins...

Kew Gardens has supplied the forecourt of the British Museum with an Australian garden. The plants are familiar. Gum trees, for example, fill so many native niches that there is a species to suit almost any foreign habitat (they have had a mixed reception, being fast-growing, which is useful, but thirsty). The BM garden is a long way from Australia as it is seen in the news, which is a place...

At the Wellcome: ‘Dirt’

Peter Campbell, 2 June 2011

On Fridays the binmen collect orange plastic bags of recyclables and black bags of corruptibles. I have a particular image of what things would be like if they never came. Some decades ago friends wanted to buy a house in East Finchley. They had to track down an owner too ashamed of the state his house was in to put the place on the market. By the time I saw it skiploads of rubbish had been...

In the Cave: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Peter Campbell, 28 April 2011

An unknown number of years ago a rockfall closed the entrance to a cave in the limestone gorge of the Ardèche river in France. In 1994 three speleologists found air wafting from an opening, cleared a way in and discovered caves and grottos running 400 metres or so into the rock. The walls are lined with drawings of animal species – bison, lions, bears, horses, aurochs, deer and...

At the V&A: Yohji Yamamoto

Peter Campbell, 14 April 2011

In a big rectangular gallery at the V&A (until 10 July) 63 dummies stand in loose groups, males labelled with an M and a number, females with a W. Each supports a garment designed between 1983 and 2011 by Yohji Yamamoto. You wander among them like a guest at a party, a garden party perhaps: the light is clear and bright. You can get as close as you like to examine fabric and stitching and...

At the Royal Academy: Watteau

Peter Campbell, 31 March 2011

Memories of Watteau were important to those who knew him. Thirty-seven when he died of tuberculosis in 1721, he was the subject of seven 18th-century biographies, only two of them by strangers. Despite this desire to record his life we have only the barest facts about it and contradictory accounts of his personality. He seems to have been attractive, difficult and secretive, as well as ill....

At the National Gallery: Jan Gossaert

Peter Campbell, 17 March 2011

The Three Kings in Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings are lavishly dressed and richly supplied with gifts. The building in which they have discovered the Nativity is a handsome ruin. The arrangement of figures and walls is solemnly vertical. The painting is dated between 1510 and 1515 and is the finest in Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance at the National Gallery (until 30 May). A new...

At Tate Britain: ‘Watercolour’

Peter Campbell, 3 March 2011

I don’t remember when I was first irritated by that children’s rhyme, which is wrong twice over. Oil painting may well be hard but in some ways it’s easier than painting in watercolour, and watercolours are often more beautiful. However, the prejudice the rhyme encapsulates does arise from real differences. A typical oil painting is an object, a substantial piece of work...

Camille Pissarro, the great Impressionist painter, spent a year in England escaping from the Franco-Prussian War. His eldest son, Lucien, spent more than half his life here. Lucien was the gentlest, sweetest, least practical of men, it seems. His wife, Esther, the tough one, had two goals, the art historian John Rewald wrote: ‘to make friends happy while at the same time running his...

At Dulwich Picture Gallery: Norman Rockwell

Peter Campbell, 20 January 2011

If you grew up in the 1940s and 1950s anywhere in the English-speaking world where American magazines were more likely to be found than European ones, places where the culture was popular not high, then a pile of the Saturday Evening Post with Norman Rockwell’s covers was likely to have been a solace, and an entertainment. In my case it was New Zealand. My wife remembers sharpening her...

In his lifetime his reputation was high, but Sir Thomas Lawrence was scarcely buried – with great pomp in the crypt of St Paul’s – before the feeling spread that his work had more brilliance than substance. Victorians, who disliked the morals and manners of the leaders of Regency society, found them reflected in Lawrence’s frequently showy pictures of the men, their...

At the Gagosian: James Turrell

Peter Campbell, 16 December 2010

When you shut your eyes you still see. If the light is strong you register a red haze as it passes through your eyelids, or the retinal after-images of bright objects. But even without residual inputs, even when there is nothing you can be said to have looked at, you still see spots and flashes and more organised phenomena like the fringe patterns that go with some headaches. That kind of...

It’s illegal to drive while you’re on your mobile phone, so why do galleries ask you to listen on headsets while you look at pictures? There is plenty of evidence – intuitive, anecdotal (scientific too, for all I know) – to show that concentrated listening and concentrated looking interfere with one another. Is it the money the headsets bring in? Or is it part of a...

At the V&A: The Ballets Russes

Peter Campbell, 4 November 2010

The range of materials in the exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-29 (at the V&A until 9 January) is not limited by beauty or intrinsic interest: if an item can help to explain how Diaghilev controlled and galvanised his family of collaborators, or let us imagine what near-century-old performances might have been like and why they transformed the art of...

At Tate Modern: Gauguin

Peter Campbell, 21 October 2010

Sweeney, in Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, says he’ll carry Doris off to a cannibal isle (she’s unimpressed). There will be:

Nothing to hear but the sound of the surf. Nothing at all but three things. DORIS: What things? SWEENEY: Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all. Birth and copulation and death. DORIS:...

At Tate Britain: Rachel Whiteread

Peter Campbell, 7 October 2010

Over the years the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square became a focus for attitudes to monuments and monumentality. There was no agreement about which person, victory or event should be celebrated, and little confidence that any modern sculptor could manage the sorrow, patriotism, nobility, admiration, pride and so on that would once have seemed appropriate. There were those who lobbied...

At Tate Britain: Eadweard Muybridge

Peter Campbell, 23 September 2010

He was Edward Muggeridge and 22 years old when he left England for America, Eadweard Muybridge when he returned 40 years later. He was English, born in Kingston upon Thames in 1830. He died there in 1904. But it was California that made him a photographer. The largest item in the exhibition of his work at Tate Britain (until 16 January) is a mighty 360° panorama of San Francisco, taken...

At Low Magnification: Optical Instruments

Peter Campbell, 9 September 2010

At lunch in France last week, with an expert on cheese and its management, the conversation turned to mites. The four teenage girls who were of the party wanted to know what they were getting their teeth into. Cheese mites are too small to be seen easily with the naked eye. Was there a magnifying glass around? There I could help, I had two of the kind of hand lenses botanists and geologists...

At the Whitechapel: Alice Neel

Peter Campbell, 19 August 2010

In Painted Truths, at the Whitechapel until 17 September, there are nearly 70 oils by Alice Neel, mainly portraits. There is also a very good film by her grandson Andrew Neel about her work and about the Neel family. It includes photographs and clips in which she looks like the model for a Norman Rockwell grandmother: grey hair pulled back, plump, smiling, wearing glasses, and pretty. To a...

At the National Gallery: Fakes

Peter Campbell, 22 July 2010

In most exhibitions in the Sainsbury Wing the pictures are dominant, the words on the walls discreet. In Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries the words are large and insistent. It is as though the pictures are being publicly shamed, like criminals paraded with their offences written on placards round their necks. While some of the pictures here are arraigned for no more than...

In Magnificent Maps at the British Library (until 19 September) you are surrounded by splendid, if overbearing peaks of cartographic art: an atlas as tall as a man, wall maps of similar size, photographs of palace corridors where every wall is a painted map. There are smaller, curious, handsome and instructive things as well, but nothing is here just because it is a significant piece of...

Blythe House, a late Victorian pile close to Olympia, was built to house the Post Office Savings Bank. It’s now the V&A’s working store for its art and design collections. Tiled corridors and rooms where thousands worked (male and female clerks carefully segregated) are now filled with racks and lined with cupboards. Through glass doors you glimpse recognisable objects: guns,...

Our house backs onto a railway. Although the line runs above ground the traffic consists almost entirely of District Line Underground trains. Only once in a long while does a stray overground freight train, the Orient Express or a commuter train pause by the back fence.

The map you pick up at any station – Transport for London’s Tube map – also elides the distinctions...

Three mundane facts say superficial but significant things about the look and content of the drawings, particularly the earlier ones, in Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum (until 25 July).

First, paper was expensive and vellum more so. The drawings tend to be small and nothing is wasted – variations or new subjects are often found on the other...

At the Barbican: Ron Arad

Peter Campbell, 13 May 2010

A ping-pong table in the Ron Arad: Restless exhibition (at the Barbican until 16 May) shows that you don’t need to change the rules just because you’ve changed the equipment. The stainless steel playing surface curves gently down from each end to meet at the steel net. Sneaky top-spin drives would, I guess, bounce high, but I didn’t experiment (bats and balls can be...

At the V&A: Quilts

Peter Campbell, 22 April 2010

Those who use repeat patterns – weavers, tile-makers, quilt-makers, wallpaper printers – rub up against the territory of mathematicians. In Symmetry, Marcus du Sautoy describes how, dodging among the tourists, he found all of the 17 possible symmetries of the plane on tiled surfaces in the Alhambra. Quite a number of symmetries can be spotted in the quilts in the new V&A...

At Tate Britain: Chris Ofili

Peter Campbell, 8 April 2010

Chris Ofili, ‘Mono Amarillo’ (1999-2002)

A shrine may be personal, private, even secret. It is a place where votive objects (models of limbs, figures, charms) are collected, where sacrifices are made, where curious memorials, fading flowers, dishes of food, are left. Here gods are propitiated, saints appealed to, spirits appeased. The aesthetic is one of unplanned...

At Tate Britain: Henry Moore

Peter Campbell, 25 March 2010

Henry Moore, ‘War: Possible Subjects’ (1940-41)

Sculpture was once strong on monuments and memorials. Now it’s a puzzle to know what to do with an empty plinth. To embellish a building (not just label it) hardly makes sense when walls are made of glass. In parks and open spaces new pieces, often not much liked, are vulnerable. A historical account of English sculpture,...

At the Gagosian: ‘Crash’

Peter Campbell, 11 March 2010

Dan Holdsworth, ‘Untitled (Autopia)’, 1998

Crash, a homage to J.G. Ballard (it takes its name from his 1973 novel), runs at the Gagosian Gallery until 1 April. Work by 52 artists starts in the lobby with a 3.5-metre-wide photograph of a Boeing 747’s undercarriage – part of Adam McEwen’s Honda Teen Facial. There are paintings with people in them, not all...

At Victoria Miro: William Eggleston

Peter Campbell, 25 February 2010

‘Untitled (Room with Old TV, Lamps, Wildwood, New Jersey)’, 2002

Over the last couple of months I have had moments when the colour of things seemed accidental, as though reality comes in shades of grey and colour is a separate, less real addition. Idealist philosophy finds colour the easiest property to reduce to something that exists only in the mind. What is the...

En route

Peter Campbell, 28 January 2010

Old posters romance journeys. The couple on deck watch the moon rise over a tropical sea. A castle on a rock fills the window of a train. A landscape unwinds before an open touring car that eats up miles of empty road. A flying boat drifts down at sunset to land on the Nile.

Neither the posters nor the reality are like that now. Travel advertisements still show destinations – a...

At the Funfair: ‘Winter Wonderland’

Peter Campbell, 7 January 2010

In an experiment reported many years ago a pencil of light was shone through a tank. The resident goldfish chose to swim back and forth through the beam. This was interpreted as evidence of an appetite, perhaps a need, for sensory stimulation. If it could, the goldfish too might pay good money to be dropped from a great height or whirled through the air. Fairground music and flashing lights...

At the Ashmolean: The things themselves

Peter Campbell, 17 December 2009

C.R. Cockerell’s Ashmolean Museum of 1845 has a pedimented central bay with projecting wings. The architectural detail – in two colours of stone, used very prettily – draws on his archaeological work in Greece. It is a fine thing: less dour than Smirke’s earlier British Museum, less grandiloquent and more thought through than Basevi’s later Fitzwilliam Museum. In...

Ask ‘What are they for?’ of objects in a design museum and you get good answers. Cups are to drink from, hats are to wear. In an art gallery, where the relevance of the use such objects may once have had is diminished, the question ‘What is it for?’ seems obtuse. The function of works of art is, on the whole, to be splendidly themselves. Yet ask the question of the...

At the British Museum: Moctezuma

Peter Campbell, 5 November 2009

The exhibition Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, at the British Museum until 24 January 2010, is sombre and disturbing – the chirpy half-rhyme in the title hits a wrong note. (The catalogue says not only that Montezuma is better spelled Moctezuma, but that his subjects are properly called Mexica, not Aztec.) What is shown is fascinating but often repellent. The carvings of skulls, hearts,...

The Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum is now open. It is home to the museum’s scientists and its dried, bottled and otherwise preserved collections of specimens. The recently completed ‘cocoon’ is an eight-storey-high sprayed-concrete storage space. The path to it (for the moment at least) is by way of the dark galleries with hardwood drawers and display cases of...

In the Country: Trees

Peter Campbell, 24 September 2009

What I did on my holidays. Twice in the summer I went to France, to La Sauvetat in the South-West and Mourjou in the Auvergne, and once in the spring to Italy, to Santa Cristina in Umbria, not far from Orvieto. Agriculture is, for visitors, a spectator sport. To offer a commentary on land management would be impertinent. But I was there for the views and allow myself opinions about how land...

In a Bookshop: Penguin by Illustrators

Peter Campbell, 10 September 2009

The new titles on the table in the bookshop, a cast of hundreds, gather for a curtain call. Like the chorus girl who breaks rhythm on the night a talent scout is in the audience, they will try any trick to catch your eye. Series and reprints – Everyman, Penguin Classics, Oxford Reference, Persephone, Faber Poetry, the books of any established author, series of textbooks and so on...

Before going down to the National Gallery’s Corot to Monet: A Fresh Look at Landscape from the Collection (until 20 September), it is worth first going upstairs to take in the evening light of Claude Lorrain’s images of a golden age and the ordered recession from tree to temple in Nicolas Poussin’s Virgilian pastorals. The exhibition down below chronicles a flirtation with...

At 1 Chiltern Street: Suits

Peter Campbell, 6 August 2009

A beguiling piece of work by Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (no apostrophe, he insists), can be seen until 20 September at 1 Chiltern Street, W1. The building used to be the local fire station. In its present state it fits the atmosphere created by LeDray’s displays of miniature garments very well. The large, dim garage that housed the fire engines resembles a run-down warehouse (there are...

‘Codex’ is a fancy word for ‘book’, but useful because it distinguishes the physical form from the text it contains. Thus a codex, a set of bound pages, is distinct from a scroll (which is what it supplanted) and from a pile of unbound leaves (a typed manuscript, for example), although either of those could contain the same words and, in one sense, be the same book....

Gwen John’s attic bedroom, Edward Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room, Adolf Menzel’s open window and blowing curtain, Andrew Wyeth’s New England rooms full of cold, hard light, Hammershøi’s frugal Danish ones and Van Gogh’s narrow bedroom: these are pictures you might choose if exiled to a desert island. Thinking of the inviting effect such paintings have...

At Tate Modern: the Futurists

Peter Campbell, 25 June 2009

The 20th century was not quite ten years old when, in February 1909, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published in Le Figaro. A photograph taken in Paris in 1912 when Les Peintres futuristes italiens was opening at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery has Marinetti in the centre of a row of artists – all in bowler hats, heavy overcoats and shiny shoes. They look like a gloomy delegation...

In the year 400 a ‘swaying multitude’ attended the funeral of Fabiola, a Roman matron. Everyone in the crowd lining streets and rooftops was ‘flattering himself that he had a share in the glory of her penitence’. Saint Jerome’s letter to Oceanus on the death of Fabiola, the primary source of details about her life and death, tells of tribulations: her marriage...

Sickert’s Venetian pictures come after the music-hall paintings and before the Camden Town nudes and interiors. He was in the city for long periods at the turn of the last century, but even after he left, while living and working in London and Dieppe, he went on producing paintings based on things he had done and seen in Italy. However, the 50-plus paintings in Sickert in Venice (at...

You never doubt that Gerhard Richter’s portraits (an exhibition of them runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 31 May) are pictures of photographs. Pictures of photographs, not pictures based on photographs, which is how you would describe them if the photograph took the place of a preparatory drawing. The effect is nothing like that of a painting which, placed alongside its...

At the New Whitechapel: Isa Genzken

Peter Campbell, 30 April 2009

Since 1901 the wide, round-arched entrance in the Whitechapel Gallery’s front on Whitechapel High Street has been open to passers-by; there isn’t even a step to interrupt the level way from footpath to gallery. It has never been intimidating. It was made for the use and pleasure of people who live and work nearby, but it is also – and always has been – an institution...

At Tate Modern: Constructivism

Peter Campbell, 9 April 2009

Liubov Popova was only 35 when she died of scarlet fever in 1924. Osip Brik remembered her saying that ‘no single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress.’ Popova’s designs (mainly simple geometric patterns, but also a pretty one sprigged with a hammer and sickle motif, reproduced below) are...

‘I have a feeling,’ Picasso said as he got older, ‘that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work.’ He also said that while he had a horror of copying himself he was happy to copy others: ‘Shown a portfolio of old...

At Tate Britain: Van Dyck’s Portraits

Peter Campbell, 12 March 2009

The 1999 exhibition at the Royal Academy celebrated Van Dyck the Antwerp prodigy, precocious master of the northern baroque, Rubens’s star pupil, a painter of mythologies and altarpieces – not just of portraits. In England, where Van Dyck spent most of the last decade of his 42 years, the demand for other genres was limited but the appetite for portraits was voracious. He became,...

In the first volume of his Coleridge biography, Richard Holmes describes Coleridge and Dorothy and William Wordsworth working ‘like plein-air painters, taking elaborate notes on the varied effects of light on the landscape, of plants and water, of wind and cloud and starlight’. They were under surveillance, suspected of Jacobin sympathies. A Home Office report provided

a classic...

At the Royal Academy: Palladio

Peter Campbell, 12 February 2009

Visiting architectural exhibitions is not a substitute for seeing real buildings, and the larger and more colourful pieces in Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy (at the Royal Academy until 13 April) are not central to an understanding of his work. There are portraits, including a fine El Greco that may or may not be of the architect; there is Bassano’s Tower of Babel, showing masons,...

The main hall of the Natural History Museum soars less dramatically than a Gothic nave, but otherwise isn’t unlike one. Light comes from high windows; there are upper galleries and chapel-like alcoves; and it is dominated by a statue in white marble of the local deity – Charles Darwin – who looks down at a huge dinosaur skeleton from the landing of the staircase that rises...

In 2006, when a picture from the Saul Steinberg: Illuminations catalogue was reproduced in these pages, the exhibition had just opened in the Morgan Library in New York. Most of the items were (or were very like) drawings made for print. The framed originals would not, I thought, add much to the intense pleasure to be had from the reproductions. Now that the exhibition has come to London...

At the British Museum: Babylon

Peter Campbell, 18 December 2008

Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much...

In Bexhill: Ben Nicholson

Peter Campbell, 20 November 2008

Surfaces in pale earth colours – brown, grey and buff – scraped and rescraped until they look like a wall ready for papering. Backgrounds overlaid with strong accents in brown and black or with patches of red, blue and green, bright as flags on a yacht. The whole articulated by hard pencil lines, some ruled, some making simple curves and circles. All of these things can be found...

At the National Gallery: Renaissance Faces

Peter Campbell, 6 November 2008

There are something under a hundred pictures, and more than a hundred faces, in Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, at the National Gallery until 18 January. Some of the pictures stick firmly to the facts: the line of a nose, the jut of a chin, the texture of stuffs and fur, the shine of gold. Others adjust things to emphasise status or enhance beauty. Sometimes features are adapted to...

At Tate Modern: Rothko

Peter Campbell, 23 October 2008

In the second, narrow room of the Tate Modern exhibition Rothko: The Late Series a single canvas fills most of one of the long walls. Rothko, who wanted people to have the experience of being enveloped by his pictures, would have been happy with the way the constricted space pushes viewers towards the empty facing wall. It is as if the picture was a radiator the heat of which drives you back....

In the Street: Kerb your Enthusiasm

Peter Campbell, 9 October 2008

Step into the street, look down, and it tells you what to do. Kerbs and gutters separate walkers from drivers. Painted words, lines and changes of material nudge you forward or make you pause. The street surface shows what is going on underground: scars left by repairs indicate new pipe work; trapdoors, lids, covers and grills point to drains, cables, coal holes and cellars. Signals of...

An exhibition of Osbert Lancaster’s drawings, cartoons, illustrations and set and costume designs, selected by James Knox, will begin at the Wallace Collection on 2 October. Lancaster was a short man with a big head, strikingly large blue eyes, a curled moustache and a dandy’s taste for very good, but emphatic clothes (pink shirts, bow ties). He surveyed English society from a...

At the National Portrait Gallery: Wyndham Lewis

Peter Campbell, 11 September 2008

Wyndham Lewis’s Modernism refuses a provincial label. His intellectual toughness and taste for self-promotion and polemic were foreign to the amateurishness that, he believed, vitiated Bloomsbury’s insular Post-Impressionism. Vorticism, the movement he set up with Pound and others around 1913 after a break with Roger Fry, would probably have had a short life even if the war had...

In the Park: Frank Gehry’s Pavilion

Peter Campbell, 31 July 2008

Some time around 1870 Frank Lloyd Wright (b.1867) was given a set of Froebel building blocks by his mother. He reckoned that playing with them set his imagination on the road his architecture would follow. Some sixty years later the grandmother of another Frank – Frank Gehry (b.1929) – poured out a pile of wood scraps for him to make things with. Today you can see him in Sydney...

The pictures in Radical Light (National Gallery until 7 September) have a technique in common, Divisionism, but not a lot else. The aim was to achieve luminosity by building up tones with thread-like strokes of pure colour – Pointillism with lines, not spots. The eye would create colours, as it creates them from the black, cyan, magenta and yellow halftone dots of printed illustrations....

At Tate Liverpool: Gustav Klimt

Peter Campbell, 3 July 2008

The faces and bodies of the women a painter invents are objects of libidinal desire. Greuze’s indelibly stupid, infatuated girls, their eyes rolled upwards in tear-stained sentiment; Burne-Jones’s slightly anaemic young women, well-built but sorely in need of someone to tell them to stand up straight; Fuseli’s athletic dominatrixes and witchy fairies; Rubens’s images...

At the Door: Open Sesame!

Peter Campbell, 19 June 2008

Something untoward has happened in our block of flats. Up on the sixth floor a door has been staved in. It has been made safe with a pair of new padlocks and much of the splintered wood has been covered with corrugated iron. The reason could be as simple as a malfunctioning lock, or as sad as the woman who lives there not answering calls. It can’t have been a break-in. The noticeboard...

In Bexhill: Unpopular Culture

Peter Campbell, 5 June 2008

Chapter titles in Light, Air and Openness, Paul Overy’s new look at modern architecture between the wars, describe the dream that the style underwrote: ‘The City in the Country’, ‘The House of Health’, ‘Built into the Sun’ and so on.* In the recently restored De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, a rare early example of the international style in...

The work in The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock is from the British Museum’s own holdings. One of the four Edward Hopper etchings is Evening Wind. A naked girl kneeling on a bed looks out through an open window. Curtains billow inwards. Her head, turned from you, is hidden by long hair which is pushed about by the wind. In East Side Interior another young woman sits at a...

At the Hayward: Alexander Rodchenko

Peter Campbell, 24 April 2008

When Alexander Rodchenko began taking photographs in 1924 he was in his early thirties and already known as a painter of severe abstracts and maker of constructions and photomontages. He produced many of his most memorable photographs during his first few years with a camera: his wife, Varvara Stepanova, smiling with a cigarette gripped between her teeth; his mother, holding folded spectacles...

At the National Gallery: Pompeo Batoni

Peter Campbell, 10 April 2008

A young Englishman of means passing through Rome on the Grand Tour in the mid to late 1700s might well have been directed to the studio of Pompeo Batoni to have his portrait painted. It would probably only have taken a couple of sessions for Batoni to get the sitter’s face onto canvas – the 12 he gave David Garrick were unusual. He made no preliminary drawings; when it came to...

It is difficult to work out who gets the credit for a building – so many people are involved, from owners, contractors and governments to bricklayers and roofers – but it is particularly hard to decide what is due to the architect and what to the engineer. Andrew Saint, in his new book, sees them as sibling rivals, and in tracing how their relations have changed over time, looks...

At Tate Britain: Peter Doig

Peter Campbell, 6 March 2008

Peter Doig painted Echo Lake in 1998. A man stands on the far side of a stretch of dark water. He is quite a way off, but you can see that he wears a white shirt and a dark tie. His hands are raised to his face. Is it to keep the light out of his eyes as he looks at you? Or is it to project his voice as he shouts? A police car, lights on, is parked behind him. Beyond the car the black-green...

At the Royal Academy: From Russia

Peter Campbell, 7 February 2008

The pictures, Russian and French in about equal numbers, lent for the exhibition From Russia – at the Royal Academy until 18 April – were made in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Early publicity for the show concentrated on the French paintings. This was not, I think, because we are familiar with the work of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso...

At the National Gallery: Good Enough to Eat

Peter Campbell, 24 January 2008

Tortured saints and dead children can be made beautiful; dead animals can too

Joan Eardley was only 42 when she died in 1963. She was born in England but her life was in Scotland. Two Scottish subjects dominate the current exhibition of her work (at the National Gallery of Scotland until 13 January): paintings of children from the tenements near her Glasgow studio, and of the land and sea around Catterline, a village on the east coast, south of Aberdeen, which she...

Global Moods: Art, Past and Present

Peter Campbell, 29 November 2007

Julian Bell has written a tremendous history of world art, one that will inevitably be compared with Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published nearly sixty years ago. Since then image-making technologies that seemed mature have changed and expanded their reach. In 1950 we lived in an image flood. We are now, as Bell puts it, in an image jam. As you turn the pages of Mirror of the World and skip from illustration to illustration you feel the jostle of hundreds of other images that could equally well have been chosen as landing places, while thousands more that make no claim to be works of art still demand attention. The very persistence of art objects can seem a burden. Of a New Ireland mask Bell writes: ‘the mask, like the malanggans, New Ireland’s giant funerary complexes of carving, would probably on principle have been consigned to the fire. That is, until European collectors created a market for “primitive” exotica.’ The plate of available art is piled higher and higher. Will appetite fail?

At Tate Modern: Louise Bourgeois

Peter Campbell, 29 November 2007

Full recognition came late to Louise Bourgeois. Born in France in 1911, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater in 1938 and moved to New York, where she worked first as a painter and then, after 1940, mainly as a sculptor and assembler of installations. The catalogue of the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern (until 20 January) consists mainly of handsomely illustrated,...

From 1 to 22 September the two floors of the Victoria Miro gallery in Islington – warehouse-like both in scale and in finish – were the site of installations by the American artist Sarah Sze. They were gathered under two titles: A Certain Slant and Tilting Planet. She has recently shown in Sweden and, over the last ten years, in America, Germany and France as well as in Britain.


Looking into cases at the small, utterly engaging exhibition of Indian paintings at the British Museum (Faith, Narrative and Desire, until 11 November) I kept bumping my head against the glass. Little greasy smudges showed where others had done the same thing. A label that describes how these works were first used helps explain why we wanted to get close to them. They were not intended to be...

Much of what is on show in the Queen’s Gallery until 20 January has been in the Royal Collection for a very long time. Charles I himself very probably commissioned one of the most remarkable pictures, Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Although the paintings Charles had gathered together were efficiently dispersed at auction under the Commonwealth (a few were...

At the Wellcome: The Heart

Peter Campbell, 16 August 2007

Some forty years ago I found myself on an operating table. Looking up I could watch the dark line of a catheter as it was pushed along a blood vessel to deliver dye to the veiled, grey, globular mass that was my heart. It seems to me now that the X-ray images I saw on the monitor were a series of snapshots, not a continuous record, yet I also seem to recall watching injected dye enter the...

At Tate Britain: Prunella Clough

Peter Campbell, 2 August 2007

An exhibition of the work of Prunella Clough runs at Tate Britain until 27 August; it then transfers to Norwich and Kendal. Clough was born in 1919, had her first one-woman show in 1947, and in 1999, the year of her death, she won the Jerwood Painting Prize. The progress of her long creative life can be followed chronologically in a sequence of three modest rooms at the Tate.

By choice she...

At the Courtauld: Cranach’s Nudes

Peter Campbell, 19 July 2007

A new exhibition, Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, runs at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 23 September. It consists of five paintings: Cupid Complaining to Venus, Apollo and Diana, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Courtauld’s own Adam and Eve. There are also some wonderful drawings and pertinent prints.


At Tate Britain: How We Are

Peter Campbell, 5 July 2007

One history of British photography that can be put together from How We Are: Photographing Britain (at Tate Britain until 2 September) traces changes in what people chose or were able to record. From the very beginning, photographers took over the mundane job of representation in portraiture and topography. But they also wanted – or were asked – to capture on film things that were...

On the Skyline: Antony Gormley

Peter Campbell, 21 June 2007

It is like the first paragraph of a bit of old-fashioned science fiction: ‘Overnight, figures, the size and shape of men, mysteriously appeared on high points of city buildings. All could be seen from the grey windowless bunker that crouched by the river. Some were near, others far off. All looked towards it.’ That is indeed what has happened. One of Antony Gormley’s armies...

To the National Gallery in search of hands and feet. It is Sunday and by coincidence a procession crosses my path holding stools and drawing books. From what I can see on the odd sheet this seems to be the ‘drawing hands’ workshop signposted at the Education Entrance.

The hand is a testing subject, although not as difficult as the ear, according to Agostino Carracci, who with his...

A few years ago a friend spent some weeks making a copy of Raeburn’s The Archers: the double portrait had recently been acquired by the National Gallery, their first painting by a Scottish artist. She began work at Christie’s, but the gallery wanted the picture on the wall and she had to finish her copy there. Public confrontation of picture and replica made comment inevitable....

In Regent Street: A Mile of Style

Peter Campbell, 10 May 2007

Shopfitting and window-dressing are ephemeral arts that flourish on novelty; even merchants proud of their long histories and royal warrants want up to date selling spaces. Bootmakers and wine merchants in St James’s may play up antiquity and preserve battered shutters and ripe mahogany but they are the exception. The timeframe of architecture is longer than that of retailing, and...

In the Garden: Rampant Weeds

Peter Campbell, 26 April 2007

Our hedge has gone. The new railings are up. Weeds have begun to cover the bare ground. A dandelion is already flowering. Its seeds will soon appear and be carried off by the wind. Very probably some will find bare earth and germinate. They will not be popular. ‘Not easy to eradicate, regrowth occurs from root fragments,’ the Pest and Weed Expert says.

Weeds follow the spade...

The Way of the Wobble: Ove Arup

Peter Campbell, 5 April 2007

The meal is over. On the tablecloth there are corks, an orange, a few walnut shells, an empty glass and a coffee spoon. Those of us whose instinct is to see if we can somehow balance these objects, one on the other, are generally found to be annoying. Conversation falters. People wait for over ambitious configurations to collapse. Structural doodling is our way of playing at being engineers....

John White is famous for the drawings he made in the late 1580s which record aspects of the North American littoral: its geography, its inhabitants, their dress, customs and dwellings, and the birds, plants and animals found there. Seventy-five of White’s drawings, along with navigational instruments, maps, books and relics of 16th-century exploration are on show in A New World, an...

At the Barbican: Alvar Aalto

Peter Campbell, 22 March 2007

The work of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is celebrated in an exhibition of drawings, photographs, models and furniture, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 May.

Although he designed nothing in Britain, much in the exhibition feels familiar. Materials (brick, tile, wood) and informal layouts bring to mind postwar English housing and town...

Three of Turner’s greatest late watercolours have been brought together for the first time: The Red Rigi (borrowed from Melbourne), The Blue Rigi and The Dark Rigi (both in private hands). By 20 March, when the exhibition ends, it will be clear whether or not the Art Fund has raised the £4.95 million needed to buy The Blue Rigi (shown here) for the Tate. Sometimes...

At the White Cube: Anselm Kiefer

Peter Campbell, 22 February 2007

The exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s new work at White Cube Mason’s Yard (until 17 March) is entitled Aperiatur Terra – ‘let the earth open’ – the reference is to Isaiah 45.8: ‘Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I...

At Tate Britain: the art of protest

Peter Campbell, 8 February 2007

Mark Wallinger’s State Britain occupies the vaulted and columned Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain’s most solemn and portentous space.* It consists of a meticulous reconstruction, overseen by Wallinger, of a notorious eyesore: the material Brian Haw accumulated on 40 metres of pavement opposite the Palace of Westminster. Haw first set up camp there in June 2001 in protest against...

At the British Library: Mapping London

Peter Campbell, 25 January 2007

The exhibition at the British Library telling the life of London in maps is a grey affair.* So it should be, for the walls and cases are necessarily packed with old engraved plans and views, and with surveys penned in neat, spindly lines. Some are worn and stained, in the way much used and very large documents get to be. Many are very rare. If your family muniment room happens to have a map...

In Russell Square: exploring Bloomsbury

Peter Campbell, 30 November 2006

In the north-west corner of Russell Square, on an extension to the School of Oriental and African Studies, a neatly lettered stone plaque attached to a nicely detailed brown brick wall reads:


At the National Gallery: Velázquez

Peter Campbell, 16 November 2006

Of the 46 works in Velázquez (National Gallery until 21 January) 13 can be seen in London at any time, mainly for free and without the press of people expected at the current exhibition. Nine are from the gallery’s own collection, four are from Apsley House. (Some of the most remarkable pictures by Velázquez in England arrived during or shortly after the Peninsular War as...

At Dulwich Picture Gallery: Adam Elsheimer

Peter Campbell, 2 November 2006

On the right of Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt a full moon hangs above trees which are silhouetted against the night sky. Nothing ruffles the surface of the stream, which reflects both the trees and the carefully detailed face of the moon. A scattering of bright stars spreads to the Milky Way, which strikes across the sky from the top left corner. The wedge of trees which rises from...

At Tate Britain: Holbein

Peter Campbell, 19 October 2006

Imagine a party attended by sitters from English portraits. The Gainsborough crowd rustle in, a blur of silk and powder. You can’t quite bring their faces into focus, but you seem to recognise them. They are elegant and casual. The people who come with Reynolds are their contemporaries, but the atmosphere changes. The men have more gravitas and fall naturally into classical poses, the...

At the Royal Academy: Rodin

Peter Campbell, 5 October 2006

Rodin’s major work is, in one form or another, on show at the Royal Academy (until 1 January). The exhibition begins in the Burlington House courtyard with The Gates of Hell. Most of the main gallery is filled with The Burghers of Calais and studies for it. Many are more than life-size; they take you by the scruff and hold your eye. Accompanying The Burghers is a small bronze of the...

At Chantilly: horses

Peter Campbell, 21 September 2006

Young’s Brewery is quitting Wandsworth. Its drays, loaded with casks and drawn by shire horses which also did a stint pulling the lord mayor’s coach, were still on the streets when we moved there in the 1960s. They won’t return. But troops of horses of the Household Cavalry, which woke us when we lived off Portobello Road, can still be encountered on their early morning...

At the National Gallery: Rembrandt

Peter Campbell, 17 August 2006

The hot, humid weather these last weeks has made me more conscious of the ways people stand and move about. Exposed flesh increases in area as the temperature rises. Traditional hot-country solutions, something loose and flowing – pyjamas, jellabas, saris and so forth – are not much in evidence. In crowded streets, a tetchy weariness surfaces. Some people are more affected than...

Angus McBean knew that he knew how to please. Actors, he said, were terrified of having pictures taken, but ‘the stars often get to know a photographer and to trust him, and thank goodness that photographer is often me!’ He took two photographs of the Beatles looking down a stairwell at EMI – neatly coiffed in 1963, hairy in 1969 – so the curator of Angus McBean:...

At Tate Modern: Kandinsky

Peter Campbell, 20 July 2006

The Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern until 1 October is subtitled ‘The Path to Abstraction’. As he stripped his work down, Kandinsky believed he was removing obstacles on the way to deeper experience. To look for goals beyond those defined by his Fauvish landscapes of the early 1900s was as much an intellectual decision as an aesthetic one. A new sensibility that communicated...

At Tate Britain: Howard Hodgkin

Peter Campbell, 6 July 2006

It’s elephant time for our cherry tree. Ripe fruit glistens among dark green leaves. A flock of starlings – some black, glossy and speckled, some buff-brown juveniles – land and scramble, mostly unseen, among the leaves which rustle and move with their comings and goings. They peck at the fruit. A pair of wood pigeons – soft grey backs, pink-buff breasts, white collars...

The success of Tate Modern in attracting visitors has been phenomenal. It is a place where believers in modern art, unbelievers, the informed and the merely curious mingle. There is no art-gallery equivalent of the church notice ‘service in progress’ to separate them, but the worship of art is on the whole a private matter and chattering crocodiles of schoolchildren need not be a...

Despite everything Auden said, there are plenty of works by Old Masters, even at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, in which suffering and death take centre stage, in which the drama is concentrated, the tragedy given nobility, the idle crowd banished and the bystanders made to pay attention.

Crucifixions and bloody martyrdoms hang so thick on gallery and church walls that one can...

Exhibitions illustrating the interaction of cultures often display one-way relationships – the influence of Japanese prints, say, on French 19th-century painting. Not so the exhibition Bellini and the East (at the National Gallery until 25 June), which documents a rich multi-directional traffic. The central work among those on show is the National Gallery’s Gentile Bellini...

At the Soane Museum: Joseph Gandy

Peter Campbell, 11 May 2006

Joseph Gandy (1771-1843) was an architect. More important, he was also a painter of architectural fantasies and reconstructions of historical architecture. These are precisely drawn, dramatically lit, strange, scholarly and elaborate. He wrote many, mainly unpublished and unpublishable pages of speculation about the origin of architectural styles and their relation to man, nature and the...

I have, most mornings, been keeping track of two construction sites. The Brunswick Centre in WC1 is being refurbished. It opened in 1972 and is the closest thing you will get outside a picture book to one of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Città Nuova projects of 1914. Two of those drawings are to be seen in Modernism at the V&A until 23 July. A couple of hundred yards up the street...

Michelangelo’s red-chalk study from life for the Sistine Chapel Creation of Adam is one of ninety or so sheets to be seen at the British Museum until 25 June. This drawing triumphantly illustrates Vasari’s claim that God had ‘decided to send into the world an artist who could be skilled in each and every craft, whose work alone would teach us how to attain perfection in...

At the Courtauld: Giambattista Tiepolo

Peter Campbell, 23 March 2006

Follow the history of Italian painting and you see saints, the holy family, mythical heroes and heroines, attendant angels, putti, ladies in waiting and men at arms hustled along by tides of fashion. Dress changes, deportment is adjusted, and the action is taken to brighter or to shadier stages. One journey is from decorous order, on through majestic assurance, to fluttering brilliance. The...

At the Hayward: Dan Flavin

Peter Campbell, 23 February 2006

For the duration of the Dan Flavin retrospective (until 2 April), the large foyer through which you enter the Hayward Gallery is bisected by a barrier of identical rectangular units, each mounted with four fluorescent tubes. They form a glowing, waist-high wall of green light which blocks the way to the ramp leading to the upper level. Objects shown in this foyer, despite its considerable...

In Paris: ‘The Delirious Museum’

Peter Campbell, 9 February 2006

The designer Calum Storrie has just published a book called The Delirious Museum.* His starting point is the belief that the museum should be a continuation of the street – as easy to enter, as amusing to pass through. This concept is possible in Britain where we have no museum charges, but the notion that streets have a lot in common with museums – and that the pleasures and...

At the Wallace Collection, Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time has been taken down into the basement. It can be found there until 5 February, holding a position of honour in Dancing to the Music of Time, an exhibition about the life and work of Anthony Powell. The painting is powerful but decorous. Apollo’s chariot, high in the sky, drives away the clouds of night. The daylight...

At Tate Modern: Henri Rousseau

Peter Campbell, 5 January 2006

Henri Rousseau said that Cézanne couldn’t draw, which seems a bit unfair when, by the standards of the academy, he couldn’t draw either. But there is certainly a sense in which Rousseau’s inability to draw is different from Cézanne’s. In the first place, it became clear that the wonky faces and rag-doll nudes that critics found inept in...

Short Cuts: the Regent Street lights

Peter Campbell, 15 December 2005

It’s the time of year when the kinds of thing that are done with light are very like those which, if done with a spray-can, would have boys up in front of the magistrates. Above Regent Street there is a parade of panels peppered with blue lights. Large snowflakes flick on and off. Cut-outs of a cartoon sabre-tooth tiger, mammoth and sloth advertise the cartoon Ice Age 2: The Meltdown...

Get planting: Why Trees Matter

Peter Campbell, 1 December 2005

They are pollarding the plane trees in our street. They do it every few years: left to themselves, branches would overtop the houses by many metres and form a summer tunnel of green. In other places and at other times the lopped branches would have been a resource. In Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (1976), Oliver Rackham makes a distinction between wood and timber. Wood, the...

Samuel Palmer had one pocket in his coat for a sketchbook and one for Milton. He recalled the years he was living in Shoreham, the decade from 1825 to 1835, as spent ‘cultivating, among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste’. During that time he made the pictures for which he is now famous: shepherds and flocks by moonlight, bright clouds, foaming blossom, cornfields heavy...

Edvard Munch’s art was made from his troubles. When, in middle age, he retreated to the estate he had bought on the outskirts of Oslo (then still called Kristiania), love affairs, drink, a nervous breakdown and illness had already supplied the subject-matter his peculiarly subjective art required. The ideas he developed early he went on using. Late in his career he wrote: ‘The...

Early evenings are upon us, bringing the concomitant pleasure of looking at dusk into the lit rooms of strangers. To assuage the curiosity partial views of private places elicit we have London Open House, the scheme which allows you to get inside quite a number of the buildings that these glimpsed rooms make you wonder about. This year it fell on 17 and 18 September. Walking the streets of...

Diary: In Auvergne

Peter Campbell, 1 September 2005

There is a painter in Henry James’s Roderick Hudson called Sam Singleton: ‘He painted small landscapes, mainly in watercolours . . . improvement had come hand in hand with patient industry.’ His appearance (he is a small plain man), his regular working hours and his modest equanimity (he has a tendency to blush) are a foil to Roderick’s good looks and labile...

If you go to The Cambridge Illuminations: Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West, make sure it’s not on a Sunday or a Monday. The exhibition, which runs until 11 December, is spread between the Fitzwilliam Museum (open Tuesdays to Sundays) and the University Library (open Mondays to Saturdays).

In or around 735, the year of his death, a copy of Bede’s Historia...

What the architects Herzog and de Meuron call ‘the waste products of a thought process’ are set out on tables and stacked against walls at Tate Modern until 29 August (the transformation of the Bankside power station into Tate Modern was Herzog and de Meuron’s work). A video projection gives you a notion of what it is like to walk round and through a number of their finished...

The Joshua Reynolds exhibition at Tate Britain (until 18 September) is subtitled ‘The Creation of Celebrity’. The case for Reynolds as a prime mover in the invention of that modern kind of fame is well made. The catalogue, the wall labels, the little cards with short quotations set in fancy borders which are stuck below some of the pictures, all these help fill out what can be...

We acquire mementos: an Eiffel Tower cigarette lighter, a mug from Margate, Michelangelo’s David on a key-ring. All say, in one way or another: ‘I was there.’ It is not just airport art and souvenir-shop knick-knacks that commemorate time in foreign parts. Trophies brought home by Grand Tourists and modern travellers – bits of marble and views of Venice, archaeological...

At the V&A: Penguin’s 70th birthday

Peter Campbell, 2 June 2005

When Hans Schmoller first saw a copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing – the book was published in 1972 – he hurled it across the room. Schmoller, who had succeeded Jan Tschichold as designer at Penguin in 1949, was a subtle practitioner of traditional book design. His pages were balanced, proper and elegant. He hated the pages of black sans serif type, punctuated with...

A photograph from a 35 mm film, shot with a normal 50 mm lens, matches up pretty well to what you think you see when you glance at a place or a room. An image printed from a bigger piece of film holds more information: you may, for example, be able to take a magnifying glass and read titles on the spines of books which would be too far away were you standing where the camera stood. Records of...

Oil paint, the most powerful of mediums, can also be nasty-looking stuff. Watercolour can be feeble or messy, tempera can lack verve, distemper can look flat, but none of them has oil paint’s potential for unpleasantness. Its physical qualities – its brilliance, the way impasto can give weight to a brush stroke, the way one colour can merge with another on the canvas, the way it...

Diary: At Kew

Peter Campbell, 21 April 2005

A new Alpine House is due to open later this year in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But you can already get a good idea of how it will look. Its footprint is small but the curved profile of its glass walls stands surprisingly high on the garden horizon. Think of it as a miniature version of the Wembley arch, the Gherkin, the London Eye – other landmarks which have bubbled up on the...

The total area of sky in Caravaggio’s paintings covers, by my count, no more than a few square inches tucked away in the corners of two quite early pictures. Otherwise his subjects are set up on crowded, enclosed stages. As time goes by general illumination is replaced by angled shafts of light. If the action takes place outdoors it is at night by lantern light. The even light of the...

The tenth and last room of the Joseph Beuys exhibition at Tate Modern (until 2 May) contains Economic Values, a piece from 1980. It consists of metal shelving stacked with household goods in bottles, packets and bags, all bought in what was then the GDR. They have, as Beuys intended, begun to disintegrate. The walls of the room are, as he requested, hung with ‘19th-century paintings in...

At the Saatchi Gallery: The Triumph of Painting

Peter Campbell, 17 February 2005

The first part of The Triumph of Painting – there will be two more – is at the Saatchi Gallery in County Hall until 5 June. It isn’t exactly a triumph. Resignation is in the air, as though the force behind twenty years of Saatchi exhibitions is on the wane. In those exhibitions things became famous without necessarily being seen. People felt they knew the tent, the bed, the...

A wheel unit from one of the older, smaller Airbus brothers of the A380 which has just been unveiled in Toulouse is on display in the foyer of the Science Museum. It is very large and very good to look at. Some of the struts have a bone-like elegance. The layout of hydraulic hoses is shipshape. The quality of the metalwork and the paintwork is very fine. But you don’t just admire the...

Two signs point to Port Sunlight as you drive up the A41. The first (a blue one) sends you to the factory, the second (a brown one, indicating a cultural monument) sends you to the village and the art gallery. If all British manufacturing disappeared the map would still bear the name of a bar of soap.

It was not making the stuff but the idea of packaging it under the name...

Manet’s brisk little painting of a frieze of men in black opera hats and a few leggy girls in bright fancy dress, Masked Ball at the Opera (1873), kicks off Faces in the Crowd: Picturing Modern Life from Manet to Today, at the Whitechapel until 6 March. The last rooms in the exhibition show photographs, pictures, videos and projections made in the last couple of years – for...

At Somerset House: Zaha Hadid

Peter Campbell, 16 December 2004

This year Zaha Hadid won the Pritzker Prize. The award was founded by Jay Pritzker who owned the Hyatt hotel chain – not that the winners of the prize have produced much that looks at all like the buildings which underwrite it. It is given annually to an architect who has, among other things, ‘produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built...

At Tate Britain: Paula Rego

Peter Campbell, 2 December 2004

There is a display of Paula Rego’s work at Tate Britain until 2 January. Her pictures invite, demand even, that you attend to what they are about as well as to how they look. They are – if one allows that families, like countries, have struggles and conflicts – political narratives. They make you ask what is going on, and lead you to answers which go beyond a verbal reply....

William Nicholson painted in white ducks and patent leather shoes. In photographs and caricatures his neat head sits on high white collars. He liked spotted shirts and fancy waistcoats. He was fun to be with but unrevealing about his art. His paintings and woodcuts give great pleasure; but no telling clumsiness draws us in: no impossible anatomy of the kind that makes Cézanne a...

The turbine hall of the old power station is cathedral-like. Its dimensions and proportions, the windows at each end and the choir-screen bridge that divides the nave space of the entrance from the space beyond are churchy. As an art gallery, it is demanding. When the long red horn of Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas filled the box the scale was exhilarating in itself, but it made the hall feel...

Some artists engage with the world. They present a public face and seem eager to value themselves as the world values them. Sales and commissions, praise and dismissal, as they come and go, define them. At the other extreme are artists who turn away from the world, strive only for their own good opinion and are uninterested in selling or exhibiting. If they’re good, they are liable to...

The National Portrait Gallery has put up a dozen or so photographs by Norman Parkinson to accompany the publication of Portraits in Fashion,* an overview of his contribution to fashion photography, the category to which the greater part of his work belongs. He began as a court photographer, taking pictures of debs, but pretty soon went to work for magazines. In particular, the Bystander and

Diary: In the Park

Peter Campbell, 19 August 2004

In 1963 we bought a house in Southfields, a few hundred yards from the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Every year since then we have, for a fortnight, had to elbow our way crossly through tides of tennis fans. During those weeks, Wimbledon Park, which lies beyond the wall at the end of our street, is given over to cars. That invasion irritates me as much as the human traffic. The park is shared...

In the early days of colour television you could buy a device which, it was said, would convert your black and white set. It consisted of a transparent plastic sheet, half blue and half green. You stuck it over the screen, in the hope that once in a while the sky and the prairie would divide the picture in the right proportions. Arkhip Kuindzhi’s Landscape: The Steppe of 1890 is the...

At Tate Britain: gardens

Peter Campbell, 8 July 2004

From the top window at the back of our house I look down on three gardens. To the right is a wilderness, abandoned to brambles, ground elder, bindweed and buddleia. Then our patch: some of it is paved, there is a frog pond, a fig tree, acanthus, bamboo and cranesbill. To the left an Italian neighbour has set out rows of plants in pots; she also has a well-pruned grape vine. You can see the...

It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the years the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilisation . . . Come on in – there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly.

This is the kind of room Edward Hopper paints. There is a man in shirt-sleeves, sometimes a secretary too, or...

At King’s Cross, a Channel Tunnel terminal, a new Underground concourse and a new station for Thameslink are being built. At the bottom of an open shaft about twenty feet deep, walled partly in concrete, partly in brick and partly in raw clay, two mechanical diggers on caterpillar tracks are at play. They are too small to have cabs. Operators in yellow coats and hard hats direct them by...

At Somerset House: Islamic art

Peter Campbell, 6 May 2004

The show of Islamic art in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, Heaven on Earth, confirms the general impression you get from royal collections that princes, like children, are drawn to bright, pretty things. Fabergé eggs, extensive stables and private menageries seem to be what really take their fancy, even more than pictures and trophies of arms. The pieces in gold, studded with...

The photographs of themselves that people like are only a fraction of those which exist. Ticks on contact sheets are outnumbered by angry crosses. As the number of images of the famous is huge, the approved picture is always under threat from the tide of those which are not. Faces, which are marketable pieces of personal property, are vulnerable. The more successful the projection of the...

In Lille: Rubens

Peter Campbell, 1 April 2004

A straw poll suggests that Rubens is not popular. How can you persuade those who can’t get on with him to look longer? You can offer opinions: what they find too fleshy I approve as sensual. When they complain of facile energy, empty of meaning, I praise the articulation of fictive space. But giving different labels doesn’t advance the case. So why defend at all? Why not just...

At the Hayward: Roy Lichtenstein

Peter Campbell, 18 March 2004

White paint and an exemplary installation currently give the Hayward Gallery an of-our-own-time presence. But the paintings by Roy Lichtenstein which line the walls – the early ones anyway – are now so well established as an ironic commentary on pop culture that they read as decoration, as conventional and period-flavoured in their way as chintz.* The general effect of the show is...

At the Royal Academy: Vuillard

Peter Campbell, 19 February 2004

Vuillard’s early work figures in standard histories of modern painting. What he did between the wars is largely ignored – people felt it was kinder to forget about it. It would be nice to say that the exhibition at the Royal Academy until 18 April confutes received wisdom. It doesn’t. All you can say is that the early rooms offer pleasures which the late ones cannot expunge....

As good a picture as any on which to hang thoughts about Philip Guston is San Clemente, painted in 1975. It shows Richard Nixon on the Californian shore. His pink, phallic nose droops between gross, grey, stubbled testicular cheeks. A tear runs down one of them. Bloodshot eyes swivel from under a black hedge of eyebrow. He looks back and down towards his enlarged, veined, pustular, phlebitic...

Two newly set-out galleries in the British Museum raise questions about collections and what you can do with them. ‘Living and Dying’ fills the space which joins the Great Court with the north entrance to the Museum. The glass cases which tower towards the ceiling contain items from the ethnographic collections. A display like a shop counter runs the length of the gallery and...

At The Whitechapel: Gerhard Richter

Peter Campbell, 8 January 2004

Gerhard Richter’s Atlas is on show until 14 March. The walls of the gallery are closely tiled with groups of framed cards of a couple of standard sizes. On them are mounted photographs, drawings, sketches and cuttings, mostly in rows like the illustrations in an encyclopedia of garden plants. These panels constitute an archive, displayed more or less in chronological order, of the...

At the Imperial War Museum: Eric Ravilious

Peter Campbell, 4 December 2003

The Second World War paraphernalia in the Imperial War Museum is not just tanks, guns and half-tracks. There is a sailing dinghy – one of the boats which evacuated soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches – as well as posters about careless talk costing lives and, high above you, propeller-driven aeroplanes, as archaic now as tournament armour, their fuselages and wings not quite smooth,...

Restoring St. George’s: in Bloomsbury

Peter Campbell, 20 November 2003

The steeple of the church of St George, Bloomsbury is an astonishing confection. A square tower rises from the ground to above roof level. It is topped by a little pedimented temple. The temple supports a stepped pyramid and the pyramid a sacrificial altar. On the altar, like a doll on a wedding cake, is a statue of George I in Roman dress. It was paid for by Mr Huck, brewer to the royal...

At the Atlantis Gallery: The Survey of India

Peter Campbell, 6 November 2003

Kim, you may remember, leaves school to work for the Survey of India. I have no idea how many of the Survey’s employees were spies, but one of them did do the kind of secret work Kipling describes. He was a schoolmaster, Nain Singh. In 1865 he entered Tibet – forbidden to foreigners on pain of death – disguised as a lama, and mapped Lhasa. Like Kim, he had learned to measure...

At the Royal Academy: How to Draw Horses

Peter Campbell, 9 October 2003

In the more complete retrospectives, you may find a corner given over to drawings the artist did as a child. Typically, they will show ships, soldiers and, especially, horses. Pictures by someone who even at seven or eight was able to get things looking right bring back memories of the children in your class who were ‘good at art’. I was seven years and three months old when, in...

At the British Museum: London 1753

Peter Campbell, 25 September 2003

In 1738 John Rocque, a Frenchman, began his survey of London. His map (engraved by John Pine) covers an area from Marylebone and Chelsea in the west to Stepney and Deptford in the east. It was finally published in 1747. Pasted together, its 24 sheets measure 13 x 6 ½ feet – that is how it is shown in the exhibition London 1753 at the British Museum until 23 November. A contemporary...

On Video: The Art of the Digital File

Peter Campbell, 11 September 2003

New equipment has made video a state-of-the-art art which is shown, very often, on a flat bright screen. Fourteen works by Bill Viola will be exhibited at the National Gallery from October until January – The Quintet of the Astonished, which took as a starting point Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, was much admired when it was shown there in 2000. The clarity and sharpness of the...

At the V&A: Ossie Clark

Peter Campbell, 21 August 2003

There is armour, an insect-like carapace; and there is drapery, a second, looser skin. Any garment can be placed somewhere along the gradient between the two. The carapace is stiff; it may have curves, but they will not be caused by the fabric’s resting passively on the body’s surface. A modern leader-of-the-nation’s lounge suit, Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl-embroidered...

We live with the knowledge that we can expect suffering and disease, and that death will come. We fear fractures, malformations, infections, wounds and parasites. We know that the way our cells divide and our glands secrete will become faulty and irregular. Precise messages from the genes – so well expressed in smooth, young bodies – will become confused. Time will wrinkle,...

At the Baltic: Antony Gormley

Peter Campbell, 24 July 2003

The walk from Newcastle railway station to the river goes from the high, crescent-shaped vaults of the train-shed down steep streets bending their way under the tall arches that carry roads and railway lines as far as the Tyne bridges – a whole sampler of span design. There are concrete beams, two kinds of truss, a suspension arch (like a miniature Sydney Harbour Bridge) and finally the...

In the City: public sculpture

Peter Campbell, 22 May 2003

Philip Ward-Jackson’s Public Sculpture of the City of London* is the seventh volume of Public Sculpture of Britain. It does for public sculpture (but not sculpture inside churches or galleries) what Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner do for the buildings the sculpture is on (or near) in The Buildings of England volume on The City of London. In a way it does more. While buildings have to...

The Saatchi Gallery, now to be found in the old County Hall building, spreads itself down long corridors and through ranks of offices. Many of these contain single works. Only in the big rotunda are a substantial number of pieces seen together – among them Damien Hirst’s very large anatomical model and Ron Mueck’s very small sculpture Dead Dad.

Anyone will be disappointed by...

At the V&A: Art Deco

Peter Campbell, 17 April 2003

A film clip from the mid-1920s of Josephine Baker dancing, looking as pleased as any extrovert four-year-old to be showing what she can do with her feather skirt and pretty body, is the happiest thing in the V&A Art Deco exhibition. She jokes with you. She has fun.

Other good things in the exhibition suggest, as her act does, that the right style can make good times better – whether...

Making pictures and dealing in them is an intimate business. In what other marketplace are the principal players – maker, buyer and seller – so close? Van Gogh’s brother Théo was a picture dealer. So was Vermeer, and so too was Vigée-Lebrun’s unsatisfactory husband. Dealers like Duveen achieved a way of life which challenged that of the millionaires they...

Spot the Gull: The Academy of the Lincei

Peter Campbell, 20 March 2003

David Freedberg’s new book is illustrated with wonderful, detailed drawings and engravings of plants, fungi, fossils, birds, insects and animals – nearly all made in the 17th century. Freedberg is an art historian; the starting point of his book is a dream he had sometime before 1986 in which Anthony Blunt appeared holding a drawing of an orange. The dream led him to the drawings...

At the National Gallery: Titian

Peter Campbell, 6 March 2003

The painting A Man with a Quilted Sleeve in the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery (until 18 May) makes sense as a self-portrait. The bearded young man looks over his shoulder towards you as an artist would who had turned from canvas to mirror. There are also two undoubted self-portraits here. The Berlin picture (from the mid to late 1540s) shows Titian in vigorous old age –...

By a happy chance I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo. It acclimatises one to the dramas and Oriental dreams which figure in the exhibition Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics (at Tate Britain until 11 May). It makes it easier to relish the dramatics of Horace Vernet’s Mazeppa, to see that there is more than nice observation of weather in Paul Huet’s...

At the Whitechapel: Mies van der Rohe

Peter Campbell, 23 January 2003

The exhibition of the pre-American work of Mies van der Rohe at the Whitechapel Gallery until 2 March covers half a career – he was 52 when, in 1938, he moved to the States. Despite that, it follows a pattern you find in the early careers of most advanced 19th or 20th-century architects: suburban villas and housing, which proved you could see a job through, and competition entries which...

At the British Museum: Dürer

Peter Campbell, 2 January 2003

Drawing, like handwriting, uses a repertoire of lines. One kind of drawing concentrates on the straightness of what is straight, the purity of what is curved, and the perfect spacing and alignment of shading and hatching. In this mode objects are made from marks whose spring and stiffness produce wonderfully energetic textures. The sheet is enlivened, as a field is when the wind bends grass...

Reading the Signs: London Lettering

Peter Campbell, 12 December 2002

In a photograph in Friday’s evening paper, behind the firemen and the flames rising out of an old oil-drum, I recognised the relief lettering: L.C.C. FIRE BRIGADE STATION EVSTON 1902. I know the sign well. Above it is a little enamelled badge: that of the old London County Council. Their architect was W.E. Riley. The lettering is part of a very good piece of integrated Arts and Crafts...

At Tate Britain: Gainsborough

Peter Campbell, 28 November 2002

The ability to achieve a likeness was always to some degree an innate talent. At the highest level it was the rarest representational skill and – in England at least – the most marketable. It was a gift which Thomas Gainsborough showed early; in one account, so impressing a friend of his mother’s when he was still a boy that his father was persuaded he should go to London...

On the Catwalk: Taste and exclusivity

Peter Campbell, 14 November 2002

The leopard, the giraffe and the macaw follow no fashion – they are born elegant and appropriately insulated. They cannot, season by season, startle with new patterns of fur or feathers. People can.

We may, snake-like, shed worn-out clothes; we may become bored, disgusted or embarrassed by the way we look. Or, better, we may decide to be inventive, emulative and playful. But whether new...

At Dulwich Picture Gallery: David Wilkie

Peter Campbell, 31 October 2002

David Wilkie, 20 years old, a sober, modest son of the manse, came to London from Edinburgh in 1805. He brought with him a couple of pictures, a sound training and great diligence. In 1806 he exhibited The Village Politicians at the Academy to great acclaim. Scotland had produced a Dutch talent – a Teniers or an Ostade. In the first decade of his career in London he painted, and made...

At Salford Quays: Daniel Libeskind

Peter Campbell, 17 October 2002

A couple of miles from the centre of Manchester, on the bank of the Ship Canal, the Imperial War Museum North stands – all bright in gleaming aluminium. A new pedestrian bridge crosses to it from the Lowry Centre’s agglomeration of theatres, galleries, shops, restaurants and bars. Old Trafford, the Manchester United football ground, is a few hundred yards away. On the tram ride...

At Tate Modern: Barnett Newman

Peter Campbell, 3 October 2002

Only about 120 of Barnett Newman’s sparse output of paintings survive, and nothing from before the mid-1940s, so the 109 items in the exhibition at Tate Modern until 5 January – which includes sculpture, and groups of prints and drawings as well as paintings – represent a remarkably large proportion of his work. He started late. Onement I, a modestly sized upright brown...

In the Physic Garden: in Chelsea

Peter Campbell, 19 September 2002

Before 1983 the Chelsea Physic Garden was a secret place you glimpsed from the top of a bus passing along the Embankment. Not many got through its gates – one director, at least, took pleasure in turning away grand amateur gardeners. Now it is open to the public (Wednesday and Sunday afternoons). It is still an important botanical resource, but no longer a training ground for apprentice...

On the Beach: Untucked

Peter Campbell, 5 September 2002

Elvis was photographed in a Hawaiian shirt, so were Bing Crosby (he had his own label), Harry Truman and Walt Disney. They are beach wear – proof that you are on vacation. The style was developed in the 1920s and 1930s by local manufacturers: worn by both native and tourists, it was the dress of choice on the palm-fringed Hawaiian holiday beaches – a paradise which, the posters of...

At Tate Britain: Thomas Girtin

Peter Campbell, 22 August 2002

Turner’s remark ‘Had Tom Girtin lived, I should have starved’ is as good a posthumous puff as any artist ever gave another. It’s printed on the back of Tate Britain’s Girtin catalogue.* There it reads as a challenge. It puts you on your mettle as you walk past the many pictures whose original effect must be reconstructed from sheets that time has rendered...

Knobs, Dots and Grooves: Henry Moore

Peter Campbell, 8 August 2002

In 1910, Sickert, writing about the newly formed Contemporary Art Society’s plan to buy modern work for public galleries, gave three reasons for thinking it a bad idea. First, it would encourage artists to paint the wrong kind of picture: ‘It will be the exhibition picture that will gain ground and the room picture that will suffer.’ Second, spending decisions which should...

At Tate Britain: Lucian Freud

Peter Campbell, 25 July 2002

Back in 1982, as we came out of a show of Lucian Freud’s paintings at Anthony d’Offay’s gallery in Dering Street (it had not been a brief visit), a friend asked what I thought of the rat. ‘What rat?’ I went back inside. It was, of course, there – dark, bright-eyed, its tail draped across the thigh of the man who leans back on a sofa in Naked Man with Rat....

Being a species with no fur, scales or feathers, oddly disposed hair and unique self-consciousness about our sexual parts, we turn to clothes. Clothes, by clinging, squeezing, covering, exposing, draping and padding, by following the body here and billowing away from it there, by making what is round straight, what is soft firm and what is dull bright, offer a critical commentary on the flesh...

Hide your wives and daughters Hide the groceries too Great Nations of Europe coming through . . .

They came in good ships; their guns were the best. First were the Portuguese, then the Dutch. The English followed. The destinations were India, Sumatra, Java, Japan, China and the Spice Islands. It had taken the crews the best part of a year of foul food and slow sailing to get...

In Venice: Tourist Trouble

Peter Campbell, 6 June 2002

Venice is an astonishing survival, preserved from change above all, perhaps, by everyone’s desire to save its fair face. Although Venice in Peril: The British Appeal for the Preservation of Venice works for the good of the city’s fabric, the symposium it arranged there a couple of weeks ago under the title ‘Residential Vernacular Architecture in Venice: The Other 90 Per...

The Brighton Museum is open again. Ten million pounds has been well spent: it is tidier, lighter, more extensive and more coherent than it was. The rich, crammed display style, which always suited its heterogeneous holdings, has been brought up to date rather than abandoned for something cooler.

Brighton life joins hands with what the museum shows. People come festively to the seaside. They...

At Tate Britain: Hamish Fulton

Peter Campbell, 9 May 2002

A retrospective exhibition of the work of Hamish Fulton is at Tate Britain until 4 June. Walking Journey is downstairs from, and in a sense complementary to, American Sublime, another celebration of wilderness, which David Craig wrote about in the last issue of the LRB.

Fulton has made many walks of many kinds in many places over the last thirty years. But because a walk must exist in the...

After the Deluge: How Rainbows Work

Peter Campbell, 25 April 2002

First the rainbow brought messages, later it demanded explanations. In the story of Noah it is God’s promise of an end to floods; in Greek mythology, Iris was both goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods. Then, once a scientific theory was called for, it proved far from easy to come up with a satisfactory one.

Most natural historians can store their specimens: butterflies...

At the Barbican: Martin Parr

Peter Campbell, 4 April 2002

I was reading in a coffee shop a couple of months ago when a young man asked if he might take my photograph. I said that I would rather he didn’t – which was churlish, because I have taken pictures of strangers myself. I was rude, I guess, because the more wonderfully apt and sensitive his picture of a grumpy, grey-haired man reading might be the less I wanted that man to be me....

At the Hayward: Paul Klee

Peter Campbell, 21 March 2002

Paul Klee drew many different kinds of picture, and the exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery until 1 April, Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation, arranges them by kind rather than chronologically. The juxtapositions are both logical and illuminating. (‘Drew’ because in most of his work there is more drawing, or drawing and filling in, than painting.)

The first kind is pictures made...

Stepping onto an escalator is an act of faith. From time to time you see people poised at the top, advised by instinct not to launch themselves onto the river of treads. Riding the moving stairs is an adventure for the toddling young and a challenge to the tottering old. Natural hesitancy puts a limit on throughput. London Underground escalators carry passengers at a top speed of 145 feet per minute – close to the maximum allowed under the British Standard specification. There is little temptation to run the machines faster, as trials show that above 160 feet per minute so many people pause timidly that fewer are carried. In the early days they had to be persuaded to get on at all. A one-legged man, ‘Bumper’ Harris, was hired to ride for a whole day on the first installation – it was at Earls Court – to show how easy it was. Some people were sceptical (how had he lost his leg?) but others broke their journey there just to ride up and down.

At the National Gallery: Aelbert Cuyp

Peter Campbell, 7 March 2002

Once again the National Gallery visits the Dutch at home. This time not Vermeer and de Hooch’s Delft but Aelbert Cuyp’s Dordrecht: instead of brick courtyards and side-lit rooms where music is played and good housewifery rules, we have boats, meads, cows, horsemen and horsewomen. The people are not so refined – Cuyp’s high finish and urbanity can’t disguise the...

In New Zealand: Timber-frame

Peter Campbell, 21 February 2002

I am in Wellington, where I spent my first twenty years. I have walked, as I used to then, down the hill from Wadestown. The pines are now taller and blacker and the glossy mounded foliage of native shrubs covers the banks of cuttings more densely. In those days, after heavy rain, there were landslips. It has been very wet this year but only one yellow patch shows where a few tons of rotten...

In Denbigh Road: David Sylvester

Peter Campbell, 7 February 2002

David Sylvester, who contributed regularly to this paper, died last June. People who worked with him usually agree that he was the most engaged and patient looker at art they ever knew. Robert Rosenblum rightly says, in David Sylvester: The Private Collection, that there was something comical about his high seriousness, but it is also true that, ‘unlike the rest of us ironists’,...

At the National Gallery: Goya

Peter Campbell, 14 January 2002

A single large and not much known picture by Goya, The Family of the Infante Don Luis, on loan from the Magnani-Rocca Foundation in Parma, is on display at the National Gallery until 3 March. Painted in 1784, it was Goya’s first significant royal portrait, a prelude to the painfully truthful Family of Charles IV. It is more rewarding to visit than most exhibitions, however many...

At the Imperial War Museum: Agitprop

Peter Campbell, 3 January 2002

To the left of the entrance to The Spanish Civil War: Dreams + Nightmares (the exhibition runs until 28 April) is the Sargent Room. At the moment it contains three big World War One pictures: Sargent’s own Gassed, Stanley Spencer’s picture of wounded men on stretchers in Mesopotamia and Nevinson’s of troops crossing a desolate, shell-pocked battlefield. To the right of the...

At the V&A: Among the Artefacts

Peter Campbell, 13 December 2001

There was, I seem to remember, a TV quiz in which the contestants watched the prizes – toasters, stereos, food-mixers – go by on a conveyer belt. The new British Galleries 1500-1900 at the V&A are put together on the same principle. Except, of course, that the goodies are stationary and you walk the length of two floors of corridor-like galleries, admiring them. The things you...

At the National Gallery: Pisanello

Peter Campbell, 29 November 2001

Pisanello, the subject of an exhibition which can be seen until 13 January at the National Gallery, was admired above any of his contemporaries in the 15th-century Italian Courts, and much praised and patronised. He was, by any definition, fashionable, a man who both made and recorded fashionable things. The exhibition includes a remarkable proportion of his surviving work: the drawings...

At the Brunei Gallery: Indian photography

Peter Campbell, 1 November 2001

Between its professional beginnings in the middle 1800s and the late years of the century photography was a laborious business, protected by heavy equipment, long exposures and messy chemistry from all but serious amateur incursions. This is the period from which the engrossing images in India: Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900 come. It explains their technical competence, a certain...

On the Streets: The Plane Trees of London

Peter Campbell, 18 October 2001

The trees of London are a slow-rising tide. Walk across the centre of the city, from Temple Station on the Embankment to King’s Cross on the Euston Road, and you have them with you all the way. Weedy young ginkgos line Arundel Street. In the spring, lilac reaches above the railings of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In August, the pavement which runs alongside Coram’s Fields...

At the Royal Academy: Frank Auerbach

Peter Campbell, 4 October 2001

Frank Auerbach is a serious painter. His retrospective at the Royal Academy, which has given over its main rooms to a show spanning nearly fifty years of his work, is a serious exhibition.1 The pictures themselves signal it with heavy colour: first, black, grey, brown, mud and rust, and, in later pictures strong reds and yellows (when he could afford it – earth colours are cheap). Thick...

At the British Library: the lie of the land

Peter Campbell, 20 September 2001

The content of most library exhibitions tantalises. It’s like food you can look at but not eat: single spreads or isolated leaves of manuscript – nothing you can dip into or flick through. Even the aesthetic of print loses out when you can’t feel the quality of the paper or get a sense of the way one page follows another.

Maps are different. An almost entirely satisfactory...

At the Musée Galliera: Children’s clothes

Peter Campbell, 6 September 2001

As the train came into Paris the baby in the seat in front stood up and looked back over the seat. I wondered idly why one so often has a firm opinion about the gender of the very young even when clothes – in her case dungarees – tell very little. For example, my father in the picture here looks like a boy to me, despite the bows and fluff.

We stopped a day in Paris to take in an...

At Tate Britain: Michael Andrews

Peter Campbell, 9 August 2001

Michael Andrews was born in 1928 and died in 1995. He didn’t produce many paintings (although the ones he made tended to be large). In the exhibition at Tate Britain until 17 October the full range of his work can be appreciated for the first time. Andrews followed a route which depersonalises the act of looking. He was taught by William Coldstream, and said: ‘Bill gave me my...

At Condor Cycles: The Tour

Peter Campbell, 19 July 2001

On 7 July the Tour de France began in Dunkirk. Lance Armstrong, who won in 1999 and 2000, has called it ‘a contest of purposeless suffering’. Cycling more than two thousand miles (many of them mountainous) in 21 days is as brutal a challenge as sport can offer. To meet it the human body is treated like a machine – the engine of the bike/body vehicle. The rider’s...

Three masters – Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer – dominate the exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School, at the National Gallery until 16 September. It shows painting done in the town during the first 75 years of the 17th century. Of the three masters Fabritius is the least Delft-like. His subject-matter is not domestic, predictable or repetitious – and...

At Tate Britain: James Gillray

Peter Campbell, 21 June 2001

Caricature is visible metaphor. Expressed in words, the idea that ‘Napoleon sliced off Europe as France’s share of the global pudding while Pitt took the oceans for Britain,’ is unremarkable. But drawn by Gillray, as The Plumb-pudding in Danger; – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, it comes alive. The two men in absurdly large hats who stab vigorously at...

The market in new paintings is exceptionally skittish. Creative Quarters,* an entirely agreeable and pleasingly discursive exhibition at the Museum of London until 15 July, maps the way money – in the form of cheap rents and unpredictable fashions – causes the artist herd to migrate back and forth across an ever-expanding city. Over the centuries cheapness drew the young and...

In Soho: Richard Rogers Partnership

Peter Campbell, 24 May 2001

John Nash’s commentary on his 1810 plan for Regent Street was clear about the social implications of what he was suggesting: ‘The whole communication from Charing-Cross to Oxford Street will be a boundary, and complete separation between the Streets and the Squares occupied by the Nobility and Gentry, and the narrower streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading...

Imagination must take the strain when facts are few. As information about the domestic life of polygamous Oriental households was fragmentary, 17th, 18th and 19th-century European writers and painters filled gaps with gaudy embroidery. Only the barest descriptions and a little gossip about the seclusion of women were necessary to seed fantasies about sex, submission, jealousy, power and...

At Tate Britain: Stanley Spencer

Peter Campbell, 19 April 2001

Official art has a bad name, yet the pictures commissioned in Britain to record the two world wars were often as good, or better, than anything else the artists did. The paintings Stanley Spencer based on his memories of service in the First War – represented in the exhibition at Tate Britain by his picture of a field dressing station in Salonika – and those commissioned in 1940...

A Wonder and a Scandal: Titian

Peter Campbell, 5 April 2001

If you are willing to define what you mean by it, the idea of progress in the arts is useful. Take Titian’s portraits. Whether or not those who first saw them understood that a new way of recording likeness was evolving, that way would define the technical ambitions of European portrait painting until photography put an end to them. In portraiture, as Titian proved, accurate drawing and...

That the 19th-century paintings from the Berlin Nationalgalerie should be exhibited at the National Gallery, London (which is, of course, as a collection, international) is a little confusing. They would be more at home alongside the 19th-century pictures in (or once in) the British national collection at the Tate. The Berlin Nationalgalerie, which opened in 1876, had, like the Tate (but much...

Unmounted and unframed, all the Rembrandt prints in the exhibition at the British Museum and all the drawings from Goya’s private albums at the Hayward Gallery – a few hundred sheets of paper, most no bigger than the page of a novel – would hardly fill a modest portfolio. On the gallery walls they draw you forward into exhilarating and troubling encounters. Were images...

At Tate Modern: Century City

Peter Campbell, 22 February 2001

Ephemerality shows its sweet sad face when the yellowing edges of books you remember buying, and of letters you remember receiving, remind you that it all happened a long time ago. The ability old paper has to set events in time past is not just a personal thing. In Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (until 29 April), Russian film posters, Japanese avant-garde magazines,...

At the Royal Academy: Caravaggio

Peter Campbell, 8 February 2001

Coming upon the Madonna di Loreto away from its proper home, the Church of Sant’ Agostino, is like finding an old neighbour wandering the streets in bedroom slippers. I saw her in Rome a few months ago. Meeting her in the Royal Academy, where she is one of the greatest of the 15 works by Caravaggio in The Genius of Rome, 1592-1623 (the exhibition runs until 20 April), I felt I should...

Behind King’s Cross: Gasometers

Peter Campbell, 25 January 2001

Tributaries to the Euston Road, the river of traffic which divides the agreeable banality of Bloomsbury from the wilderness which spreads beyond the train sheds of St Pancras and King’s Cross, come from north, east and south. Of these, St Pancras Road, snaking between the two stations, is least clear about where it is going. Walk up it and you are drawn into the dark slot – not...

Leaving the exhibition of Turner watercolours at the Royal Academy’s Sackler Galleries, I looked down Piccadilly towards the Ritz and Green Park and tried to see the view as Turner might have done. The day was a little misty (he would have liked that) and the sun a brightness hidden in cloud. I could make a guess at how he would have handled the distant trees in the park and the...

How Jeans Got Their Fade: mauve and indigo

Peter Campbell, 14 December 2000

Human beings have an insatiable appetite for colour, but the everyday gaudiness of our world is modern. We can dress as showily as birds (including crows – 70 to 90 per cent of clothes are dyed black) because we have found ways to stain pale yarns in strong colours. During the last 150 years the whole spectrum has come to be cheaply available, as it has become possible to synthesise...

In assembling Le Dieu caché: les peintres du Grand Siècle et la vision de Dieu, a collection of 63 French 17th-century religious pictures which can be seen at the Villa Medici in Rome until 28 January, Olivier Bonfait and Neil MacGregor challenge us to take theology as seriously as aesthetics. They also prove that it requires more than a sensitive eye and a generous imagination to...

The exhibition the National Portrait Gallery has put together to celebrate the Millennium – Painting the Century – consists of 101 pictures: one painted in each year from 1900 to 2000. Hung chronologically, it shows the last century’s stylistic disarray. Even in the narrow genre of face painting no single way of doing the job, nothing which would give a good idea in advance...

The organisers are almost bashful about the exhibition Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-90, which runs at the National Gallery until 28 January. Impressionist pictures are guaranteed to draw a crowd. But the individual painters, the social context, optical science and technique have all, as they point out, been analysed in books. Most of these elements have been given shows of...

At the V&A: fashion photography

Peter Campbell, 19 October 2000

Fashions, like seasonal fruit, are best consumed fresh. The photographs which speed garments to the markets say less, these days, about the product than about imagined fates. They tell stories in which clothes will be tear-stained (or champagne or beer or blood-stained). They show how they will be stretched dancing or crushed on the grass – and how people who wear them might see out the...

At Dulwich Picture Gallery: Gerrit Dou

Peter Campbell, 5 October 2000

A detail from The Grocery Shop by Gerrit Dou (1613-75), now in the Queen’s Collection – bought by George IV for 1000 guineas in 1817. Dou’s reputation (and prices) were then still high. He gave tremendous value. He attended closely to the play of light as it came through a window or was thrown out by a candle. He rendered the textures of wood, metal, fabric and fur...

The Misery of Not Painting like others

Peter Campbell, 13 April 2000

Because Matisse’s work (his late work, anyway) seldom involves any alienating display of skill or aggressive degree of difficulty, he persuades us that our ordinary visual pleasures could, were they to be extraordinarily intensified, be the same as his. He is thus vulnerable to the admirer’s revenge: to an intrusive assumption of intimacy on our part. His life was not a public one but even the simplest suppositions about it – that it must have been very pleasant to sit painting the girls, the fruit, the flowers and the bay beyond the balcony, for example, or to cut out shapes in coloured paper and then arrange them – are often wrong.’

Eye Contact: Anthony van Dyck

Peter Campbell, 16 September 1999

Sincerity and curiosity are virtues in painting; but so are grace, nobility and even the kindness that comes close to being flattery. ‘Van Dyck,’ Roger de Piles noted, ‘took his time to draw a face when it had its best looks on.’ He painted Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, as a handsome woman – without, it would seem, losing the likeness. Yet her niece, who knew her first from the painting, was surprised to find the Queen ‘a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort.’’‘

Jug and Bottle: Morandi

Peter Campbell, 29 July 1999

Of all the gratifications painting offers, the pleasures which come by way of pictures of pots, bowls, fruit, game, bread, bottles and so forth are the least explicable in terms of other appetites. Still-lifes do not charm topographically, arouse erotically or excite physiognomicaily. They do not, despite often showing food, do as much as they might to make the mouth water. The greatest of them are celebrations of frugality. Cézanne’s apples, Chardin’s peaches and Morandi’s jugs rebuke the gleaming succulence of the lobsters and fish, the rich crumbling pies, even the crisp linen, which make the paintings of 17th-century Dutch masters the ancestors of photographic illustrations in cookery books – although, to be fair, those illustrations also find models in the work of painters who turned, not to the splendour of the feast, but to the coolness of the larder. The surfaces of the greatest still-lifes are more often floury or waxy than glazed; the objects are solidly there, sparingly translucent. They may glow, they do not glitter. Matisse had to have the real thing – girl or oyster – in front of him when he painted. And it had to be fresh: for one still-life he renewed his oysters every day and had a boy on hand to water the fish for another. The results are delicious, but only metaphorically mouthwatering.’

In 1886 there was an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery of the work of John Everett Millais (Sir John, in fact: he had recently been made a baronet). There were pictures from his Pre-Raphaelite infancy, like Isabella and Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop; anecdotal ones, like My First Sermon (a child portrait in the Bubbles line); landscapes (Chill October); pictures with stories (The Proscribed Royalist) and pictures from stories (Mariana). They were all famous.

Under the Brush: Ingres-flesh

Peter Campbell, 4 March 1999

The exhibition at the National Gallery of Ingres’s portraits is both lavish and comprehensive. It also insists that you come to a conclusion about him. To be offered something as complete as this and not sort out your ideas would be slovenly. Which is not to say that it’s easy. The pictures are brilliantly painted, intensely pleasurable – and oppressive. To start with what’s oppressive. In some of the portraits of women the flesh of bare arms and shoulders looks powdered and resilient, as though they were blown up from some specially luxurious surgical rubber and then talcumed. The men meanwhile might have been groomed for the television lights. The finish is smooth, precise and brilliant. 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 have been expensively transformed by some cosmetic process into Ingres-flesh. And in a way – though Ingres complained that the fees paid for small pictures were not worth the effort – they have been.’

Some good places for looking at pictures retain the feel of the private houses they once were (the Phillips Collection in Washington, or Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge), but there are no rules – re-hangings at the Tate gave new life to pictures which seemed to have lost heart, just by putting them in the right company. In places where they are happy, you can look at paintings you know and still have the sense that it is a first encounter. But mechanical reproduction has seen to it that real first encounters are now gifts which come half-unwrapped. The best reason for going to exhibitions is to see what cannot be reproduced. The job of the curator is to contrive the kinds of meeting in which pictures can say what they have to say. It is not easy, as two exhibitions currently running in London bear out, and requires a measure of tact.’

Long Spells of Looking: Pretty Rothko

Peter Campbell, 17 September 1998

There is a picture of Mark Rothko taken at his East Hampton studio in 1964. He is sitting on one of those solid wooden beach chairs that stand around on the porches of Long Island summer cottages, looking at one of his own paintings as one might look at the sea, patiently pursuing all that his picture has in it. He was famous for this: for attending on the effect of each change in the angle or intensity of light, for looking close up and far off. In the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (it goes on to Paris in January) Barbara Novak and Brian O’Doherty write:

We all love Bonnard now. In straw polls he is in everyone’s top three. Unexpected people turn out to have been fans: Francis Bacon liked his brushwork. It was not always so. ‘Pierre Bonnard. Is he a Great Painter?’ Cahiers d’art asked at the time of his death in 1947. They decided he wasn’t and that only those whose taste was confined to the facile and pleasing would say he was. Nor was he much regarded in America, where a definition of the Modern was being worked out that would exclude him. He was Picasso’s ‘pet aversion’; Françoise Gilot records some of the things Picasso said: ‘That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve … The result is a pot-pourri of indecision.’‘

Diary: At the new British Library

Peter Campbell, 27 November 1997

By the time this copy of the LRB reaches you the new British Library at St Pancras will be open – or rather, the Humanities Reading Room will be. For the Rare Books Reading Room you must wait until February 1998, for the Oriental and India Office Collections Reading Areas until August, and for the Manuscripts Reading Room until January 1999. The Science Reading Room opens in mid-1999.

Royals in Oils

Peter Campbell, 13 November 1997

In her portraits Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun did her very best to give a pleasing account of the facts of the flesh. The faces are attractive, the expressions forthcoming and responsive. The phrase ‘a smile played around her lips’ could have been invented to describe them. Her trademarks are half-disclosed rows of little pearly teeth; up-and-under looks; draped shawls, Greek smocks, Oriental accessories and loosely gathered curls; or a heavenward gaze (which owed something to Greuze, but doesn’t have the repellent sentimentality of his tearful bearers of crushed blossoms). On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined.‘

How to See inside a French Milkman

Peter Campbell, 31 July 1997

We know the Insides of our bodies intimately. We suffer and enjoy spasms, orgasms, pains, shivers, stomach heaves, heart-beats, knee trembles and twinges. We make guesses about the causes of burps, rumbles, farts, sweats, swellings, flushes and rashes. We may even get a glance, by way of a nasty accident, at a bit of bone. But in other ways we know our insides hardly at all. We are vague about what they look like. Even when we have the words – spleen, kidney and so forth – the associated pictures are often schematic or gleaned from the supermarket meat counter.


Peter Campbell, 19 June 1997

Around the middle of the 19th century, disaster struck academic painting. Extinction threatened whole families of subject-matter – histories, moralities, fantasies – and the genres which dominate our own view of the following decades began to flourish: pictures made in the open air, scenes of modern life. What had happened? Was academic painting pushed off its perch by competing styles, or did it grow unsteady because of some failure of its own or from some fatal infection?

My space or yours?

Peter Campbell, 17 October 1996

In the world which is entered by way of the computer people are often not what they seem; they may hide behind their screens and offer false descriptions of themselves. The boundaries between truth and fiction are hard to police in cyberspace – it could have been expressly made for tricksters, liars and fantasists. The moral anxiety this generates is as ancient as Plato’s fear of poetry, and as modern as animadversions on the corrupting power of comics and television. The liberal assumption is that we need not fear the virtual reality created by computers. We are good at distinguishing what is real from what is not: indeed, dealing with ‘what ifs’ is one of our gifts. But, some argue, maybe computers are different. Is it not possible for them to engross people in a way print, television and the telephone do not? Even if we believe that it is good for us to be deeply engrossed, it is also, the argument goes, liable to change us. Spend hours every day pretending to be someone else, for example, and your sense of identity will be affected.’

What It Feels Like

Peter Campbell, 4 July 1996

Degas beyond Impressionism at the National Gallery shows an old man’s work. His eyesight was giving him trouble. His subject-matter had narrowed down to a few themes: women – standing, stretching, washing, drying themselves or brushing their hair; dancers – resting, putting on a shoe, standing in the wings or grouped on the stage. Subjects from modern life, which had characterised his early work, are missing: no jockeys, few portraits, no brothels, no street and café scenes, no music-hall singers. Landscapes, more of them than you might expect from a painter who was so scornful of the genre (and some of them in curiously lurid before-the-storm-colours), share the simplified outlines and generalised forms which distinguish the pictures of women.’’

Half a Million Feathers

Peter Campbell, 4 April 1996

Some art is distinguishable from non-art only by the kind of attention it gets. In a museum of modern art anything which is not already an item in the collection, from the light bulbs to the urinals, is on the verge of becoming one. Similarly, it was a change in the quality of attention which transformed ethnographers’ collections of ‘material culture’ – masks, weapons, textiles, pots – into ‘tribal art’: a transformation made easier, perhaps even caused, by new Modernist definitions of art. Once it had taken place there was free hybridisation between Western and tribal art.’


Peter Campbell, 30 November 1995

Powdering one’s nose is a strategy for controlling the effects of light. The powder changes the reflectivity of the surface of the skin. Oily skin acts as a mirror which bounces light off at an angle equal to the angle at which it arrived; powdered skin is matte and reflects light in all directions. Powdering thus turns a bright, specular highlight (the kind you get on glass or polished metal, which moves across the surface of the object as you change your point of view) into a diffuse one. For an artist, getting to know the nature of highlights, grasping the fact, for example, that the end of a nose or a cheek, even a brown or black nose or cheek, will often be the brightest part of the face – brighter than the ‘white’ of the eye, which is, in fact, usually grey and shadowed by the eye socket – is one step on the path leading from naive to ‘realistic’ representations of faces.’


Peter Campbell, 20 July 1995

Brancusi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904, already a competent modeller and furniture-maker – a craftsman as well as a sculptor, trained in the Craiova school of arts and crafts. He is a node in any number of nets drawn to explain 20th-century art in terms of who might have known whom, what they might have learnt. There are many moments to choose from. A month working with Rodin. A visit to the Paris air show in 1912 with Léger and Duchamp – when the latter famously pointed to a propeller saying: ‘C’est fini la peinture. Qui fera mieux que cette hélice? Dis, tu peux faire ça?’ (Brancusi was already making sculpture of propeller-like smoothness – Prometheus, for example, a head as simple as a bean seed.)’’

Urgency Is Not Enough

Peter Campbell, 6 April 1995

Put sickness, art and death together and only a handful of images come to mind. Pathetic ones – Munch’s sick child in bed, Picasso’s wasting blue and pink girls and boys. Others done with stoic or scientific objectivity – like Hodler’s pictures of his dying mistress. There are decadent fantasies which show death the seducer, and sober, sad records of dead children. All these are images from the days when infectious illness was a deadly visitation. Then experience in rich countries changed. It almost seemed as if people, young people anyway, got sick only in order to be cured. As if medical skill needed volunteers on whom to exhibit its tricks. After the Second World War tuberculosis no longer killed a substantial proportion of its already decreasing number of victims. To see the young die from infectious disease became as old-fashioned as hoop skirts.’

Grope or Cuddle

Peter Campbell, 12 January 1995

‘Tiepolo,’ Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall write, ‘is not a difficult painter. He is accessible and easy to like.’ Well, up to a point. For example, while I did not find the Tiepolos in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of 18th-century Venetian art ‘difficult’ in any obvious way, I did not find them ‘easy to like’ either. On the contrary. Despite their brilliance they are easy to dislike. Take, for example, Saint Agatha. The saint kneels, facing you and looking up over your head. A companion holds bloodied drapery to the saint’s mutilated chest; a boy bears her severed breasts on a dish held chest-high – for all the world like a Veronese page boy bringing puddings. The executioner, his bloody sword in his hand, stands behind Agatha and her supporters. Clear colour is confined to the drapery – slate blue at Agatha’s feet, pale blue at her elbow, amber yellow in the boy’s shirt behind her right shoulder, orange-pink in the puffed sleeve of the female supporter, dried-blood red in the vest of the executioner. This drapery, which is so loose and bunched up that it is difficult to read the bodies behind it, makes a loop which crosses the linear pattern of arms and shadows and surrounds the central figure of Agatha. Her face, bare shoulders and right arm are the eye’s starting point and final resting place.’

It’s a Crime!

Peter Campbell, 8 December 1994

Destroying his Céret paintings became an actual diversion, strangely entertaining to him, enjoyable like the savagery of the wrestling matches he regularly attended. He would install his mistress in a café, go in search of a Céret picture he had heard some dealer owned, exchange with him a new picture for the old one, and ritually, happily, destroy it.

Character Building

Peter Campbell, 9 June 1994

Books, too, have a body language. But does the way they are physically presented impinge in any significant way on the texts they contain? Jerome McGann reckons that the private press movement (William Morris and his followers) was an agent in the rise of Modernist poetry, and goes on to make large claims for the ability of poetry in the Modernist tradition to unknot linguistic and philosophical binds.

Other People’s Rooms

Peter Campbell, 7 April 1994

David Halle’s researches earned him a licence amateur voyeurs would kill for. He got to nose about, more or less at will, in other people’s rooms. His study of the landscapes, portraits, snapshots, saints, masks and so forth which a representative group of Americans, in and near New York, have on their walls and shelves, of how they display them and what they say about them, required that he get to know more than a hundred and sixty different houses. The aim was to test and develop theories about art and class. His book provides, incidentally, much information about how American houses are used and what the art they contain signifies. When curiosity about this kind of thing feeds through to television shows investigating the lifestyles of the rich and famous it makes mass entertainment. In magazines and books, pictures of rooms seed fantasies about perfect lives lived in country cottages, or exciting ones lived in New York lofts. But most people feel happier looking around strangers’ houses than having strangers look around theirs. What persuaded residents to co-operate with Halle?

School of Hard Knocks

Peter Campbell, 2 December 1993

There are two forces at work in sculpture. One pushes it towards the waxwork, where materials suggest something quite contrary to their native qualities – marble flesh, wooden flowers, metal drapery and so on. The other takes it towards material for material’s sake, towards the pebble which lives by its pebble-ish nature alone. Nicholas Penny’s book shows how these forces are reconciled.’

Consider the lions

Peter Campbell, 22 July 1993

Around 1421 Marin Contarini – a member of one of the ruling Venetian families – began building a house on a site across the Grand Canal from the Rialto. This new palace replaced another, on the same site, which he had bought from his wife’s family. More than twenty years later the scaffolding came down to reveal the most resplendent domestic Venetian-Gothic façade of them all. The house was a place to live and do business. It was also, and more obviously, an advertisement for the power and wealth of the Contarini clan. It is still among the most splendid buildings in Venice. More than two hundred years later, Louis XIV built a monument to power on a much grander scale. His palace frontage is not the jolliest Classical building in Paris, but it is still the most impressive and among the most magisterially consistent.’

To hell with the lyrics

Peter Campbell, 25 March 1993

In her essay ‘Good Boys and Dead Girls’ Mary Gordon identifies the ‘American innocent’. She tracks him – young, restless and bad news for women – through the novels of Faulkner, Dreiser and Updike. ‘All that matters is that his heart must be pure, and he must move forward to the quest which for so many male American writers is the most crucial one: the search for the unfettered self.’ The ‘unfettered self’, or rather its expression in paint, was exactly what the makers of Abstract Expressionism in the Forties and Fifties pursued. Robert Motherwell was one of them, and his collected writings – a revealing gloss on artists of the School of New York and on modern painting in general – reflect one of history’s ironies.’

Bachelor Life

Peter Campbell, 28 January 1993

Delacroix should be an open book to the British. He respected them. He was a dandy with a taste for English clothes. The English taught him to paint in watercolour. He admired and was influenced by English painters – Lawrence, Wilkie, Bonington and Constable – and took subjects from Scott, Byron and Shakespeare. While others crossed the Alps to see Rome, Delacroix crossed the Channel to England, and rather liked it (although he did think he might have liked Italy better). And yet his temperament and his way of life were shaped by social conventions, family attachments and political connections which were so distinctively of the French 19th century in character that Timothy Wilson-Smith’s biography leaves the British reader feeling around for something familiar to get a grip on. Perhaps one should first rid oneself of the idea that Delacroix’s Anglophilia is going to be any help, and assume that England, as much as Morocco, was attractive because it was exotic. The source of one’s puzzlement goes deeper than national differences, however. To make sense of Delacroix’s life one must understand how the disdainful Delacroix, who said he preferred to converse with things, could cohabit with the Delacroix who was constantly dining out and eager for public recognition.’

Can I have my shilling back?

Peter Campbell, 19 November 1992

Jacob Epstein made, roughly speaking, three kinds of sculpture. There were busts and portrait heads in bronze, which pretty well everybody liked. I remember returning again and again to the photographs of them in his autobiography, particularly to the long-necked high-cheekboned girls who seemed as romantic as Picasso’s sad blue and pink people, but more substantial. Then there were the monumental bronzes: the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square and the St Michael at Coventry, for example. These were well-liked by most people and liked very much indeed by many. Because they are whole figures, not just heads, you can see how Epstein handled poses: they tend to be solemn, formal and frontal, the palms of the hands often turned towards you. These pieces made me uneasy: were they serious, or were they just making serious gestures? They seemed uncomfortably close to allegorical figures on public monuments and war memorials which use solemn language with rhetorical mendacity. And finally there were the carvings, some very large, some modest in size, mostly smoother, more stylised, and more in the tradition of early 20th-century Modern than the cast sculptures (with the startling exception of Rock-Drill). Among these carvings are the doves, of around 1915, which were Epstein’s shot at Brancusi’s kind of abstraction and simplification, and a whole string of allegorical figures. Some owe more than others to his study of non-European sculpture, many, like Adam and Genesis, are figures composed of tight intersecting curves. This gives them a great deal of surface energy. Too much to my eye: Adam seems to be pumping iron and the pregnant figure of Genesis to be painfully swollen. Although some people liked as much these carved figures, from the BMA sculptures of 1908 to the TUC memorial of 1958 as much as the bronzes, they were almost pathologically, and very publicly loathed by others

Total Knowledge

Peter Campbell, 10 September 1992

In the late Fifties, at university in New Zealand, I did the kind of degree in which you are allowed to mix subjects. I spent my first year reading philosophy, geology and English. 1 never quite got a grip on these subjects, and certainly have not kept up with them, 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.

Better than literature

Peter Campbell, 23 April 1992

The frights the news brings – from child abuse to acid rain – prepare the mind for fictional scares. Carl Hiaasen’s comic thrillers deal with crimes against the planet. He puts wetland clearance and condominium building up alongside bank robbery and murder. His books do not offer hope. Right can only win in the short term. We are all guilty of existence and our sheer numbers...

The wearer as much as the frock

Peter Campbell, 9 April 1992

Time can play dirty tricks on architects when launch-time promises are recalled to mock crumbling fabric. The progenitors of much post-war public housing suffered in this way. Time finds out bad bets; entrepreneurs are bankrupted financially, planners intellectually. But it has always been like that. Linda Clarke’s Building Capitalism illustrates its argument with a study of Somers Town, where a late 18th-century planner’s promise – to develop an estate of middle-class houses north of the Euston Road – went just as badly wrong as any Sixties development. General Booth himself (the Salvation Army now occupy buildings only a few hundred yards from where Somers Town stood) reckoned it a centre of frightful moral and physical contagion.’

Perfectly dressed

Peter Campbell, 7 November 1991

Words about pictures are often commentaries which justify categories. They give reasons for inclusions, exclusions and orderings. Connoisseurs distinguish genuine works from misattributions, and historians establish chronologies which support claims about why and how things have changed. What they write can be challenged by facts. A new X-ray or a contemporary inventory may destroy the argument a group of paintings was chosen to illustrate. Critics, by contrast, invent categories which facts cannot invalidate. For example, Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the naked and the nude stands as long as we agree that pictures of unclothed people can be assigned to either the nakedness pile or the nudity pile. A comparison or anecdote may suggest why pictures in a critical category look similar, or may be the catalyst which leads the reader to react as the writer wishes, but no revelation about a painter’s intentions, no change in attribution, no proof of forgery, can force the removal or inclusion of a particular image.

Thinking big

Peter Campbell, 26 September 1991

Great ideas share skulls with foolish thoughts. Nonsense runs with greatness, like vermin in a zoo, and no intellectual pesticide can guarantee to kill it and leave truth alive. Common sense has a particularly bad track record as a check on what is possible. So Newton, who dabbled in alchemy, would understand the characters in Ed Regis’s history of fin-de-siècle scientific hubris – subtitled ‘Science Slightly over the Edge’, it tells stories, mainly from the Seventies and Eighties, of some of the wilder projects of scientists, engineers and DIY enthusiasts. Once you start thinking on a really big scale there is no simple way of of separating the reasonable from the silly. Today’s impossibilities (immortality, travelling to the ends of the galaxy, mining the Sun, building living organisms from scratch) seem only a step or two away from a project like getting a man on the Moon. And that, only yesterday, was said by Astronomers Royal and leader writers on the New York Times to be, demonstrably, not on. Why should one be talked down from one’s tree by the kind of people who made that booboo?’

John Minton’s face is familiar – if not from the self-portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery, then from the likeness he commissioned from Lucian Freud and bequeathed to the Royal College of Art. It is very long, large-eyed, hollow-cheeked, with a receding chin and dark tousled hair. Photographs suggest that the self-portrait is a better physical likeness; the truth about his emotional state seems to lie with Lucian Freud. The manic side of his personality shows only in photographs, where the mouth stretches into a toothy grin. His work, once famous, is now probably best remembered by those who saw it when it first appeared in Penguin New Writing, or on book jackets and in magazines.’

Among the quilters

Peter Campbell, 21 March 1991

Asya, the heroine of Michael Ignatieff’s novel of revolution and exile, is born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1900. As a child, she nearly drowns walking out over the thawing ice beneath which the River Vasousa roars. She has a vision there of a great skater. Her brush with death changes her and leaves her with a belief ‘even when fear had her in its clasp … that it would let her go.’ The reader is thus guaranteed a courageous heroine. And a beautiful one. She is no Jane Eyre with only grit and tenacity to compel a hero’s love: ‘she had inherited her mother’s tall thin good looks. “You look like a fine pair of Borzoi hounds,” Father used to say of them in his jocular manner, meaning that they were fineboned and delicate of feature, with long, finely tuned limbs … She had curly black hair, pale white skin and lustrous black eyelashes.’ But her father admires most her strong chin, wide downy upper lip and moth-grey eyes. About such a heroine a vast amount of tosh could be written. Ignatieff’s novel is subtitled ‘a love story’, which suggests it will rise, for better or worse, into the upper emotional register. Despite every opportunity of scene and action, it never does. He is too self-aware, or perhaps too fastidious, to abandon himself to a coloratura line. Instead, he chills Asya’s character to the point where he as narrator can safely handle it: ‘When in later life people said she was cold, she never disagreed. For she knew, and some inner recess of her body never forgot, how cold the river torrent had been.’

Taken with Daisy

Peter Campbell, 13 September 1990

Penelope Fitzgerald’s new novel, like her last one, The Beginning of Spring, is set just before the First World War. Its locale, 1912 Cambridge, is not much less exotic than its predecessor’s Moscow, but it is entirely convincing: Fitzgerald’s pre-1914 worlds are wonderfully circumstantial. The book is short and full of activity. The story moves swiftly in unexpected directions. It is inspiring, funny and touching. One cannot write about it without giving away a lot of the plot, which is a pity when the story is so briskly anecdotal. However, the book has a fine, strange beginning which may be enough to make you decide to get it into your hands immediately:

Concini and the Squirrel

Peter Campbell, 24 May 1990

In Innumeracy, a sane, amusing, unintimidating introduction to the consequences of mathematical illiteracy, John Allen Paulos shows how a little arithmetic can cast light on the cohesiveness of cultures. He quotes an experiment in which the psychologist Stanley Milgrim gave each member of a randomly-selected group of people a document and a ‘target individual’ to whom the document was to be transmitted:


Peter Campbell, 19 April 1990

R. K. Narayan has the most godlike of the novelist’s powers: to know all his characters equally well – too well to love or hate them, except, perhaps, in a godlike way, as parts of the entirety of his larger creation. Malgudi, most real of imaginary towns, is that larger creation. Like the Gods, Narayan is a comedian: the smallest things, the most counter-dramatic lives, are within his compass. In The World of Nagaraj he shows how an ineffectual man lives with his ineffectuality. Only those who have never begun a project and dropped it, or thought the truth but failed to speak it, or acquiesced in a decision which went against their wishes in order to avoid embarrassment, can have no sympathy with Nagaraj.’

Homage to the Provinces

Peter Campbell, 22 March 1990

‘The label “Wright of Derby” is likely to be permanent, although it inevitably has provincial connotations which now seem inappropriate.’ So Judy Egerton writes in her introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition of his work which runs until 22 April at the Tate. ‘Inappropriate’, I suppose, because ‘provincial’ suggests pictures which cannot stand metropolitan comparisons – something which Wright’s work, from the time of the exhibition of the Orrery and the Air Pump, did very successfully. On the other hand, Wright’s individuality is inseparable both from a provincial culture – that of the Midlands in the second half of the 18th century – and a provincial style.’

When Meredith Potter, the producer, asks Stella, the heroine of An Awfully Big Adventure, what she thinks J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner is about, she says: ‘Love. People loving people who love somebody else.’ He explains that she is mistaken, and that it is mostly about time. An Awfully Big Adventure is about people – members of the Liverpool Repertory Company in 1950 – loving people who love somebody else, as well as about Liverpool, about 1950, and about theatricals. What is to happen, and what has happened, are revealed in ways which only very retentive readers will twig; a second reading is even more satisfactory than the first. It deepens one’s respect for the drawing of Stella – a human catalyst who wills nothing evil, but whose character and history have shaped her to cause trouble. Through her, the psychology and mechanics of mischief, of why accidents are likely to happen, are wonderfully displayed.’

Royal Pain

Peter Campbell, 28 September 1989

For decades the Barber Surgeons lanced boils, cut for the stone and trimmed whiskers indiscriminately. Then the surgical specialists got a little education, left off hairdressing and became a profession. The architects, by contrast, made no clean break between the art of building and its ancillary sciences.


Peter Campbell, 31 August 1989

In fiction the form of the fairy-tale and the sound of gossip are joined. The first allows heroes and heroines, tragic misunderstandings, farcical adventures, grotesque cruelties and happy endings. The second gives the valet’s view of the same events, or untinctured gushings from the parish pump. In some strains of fiction the tale atrophies and only the gossip is left, and of these strains the Anglican novel of village and suburban life is a pure variety. It is remarkable for tackling the problem of ordinariness. By an extension of Christian love, boring people are gathered together into the community of its characters. In the Christian congregations which figure in such novels they preponderate – the chorus of regular worshippers is usually subfusc. The challenge is, of course, to overturn or qualify the categories of ‘boring’ and ‘interesting’. The writers of these tales build their moralities around small derelictions (like Emma’s failure of charity to Miss Bates), and do not exclude the problems of homely, limited lives from the arena of the soul’s struggle. Agnostic readers probably feel easiest with them when they are funny: Barbara Pym pleases by her disengagement, by avoiding a charismatic or the enthusiastic tone.’

Suiting yourself

Peter Campbell, 27 July 1989

No complete set survives of I Modi, the famous engravings showing positions for copulation, made by Marcantonio from drawings by Giulio Romano: it is said that both copper plates and prints were destroyed by the order of Pope Clement VII. The engraver was imprisoned, and the second edition, which included 16 sonnets written by Pietro Aretino to accompany the pictures, was also supressed. However, there’s a sheet of fragments (with the provocative bits excised) in the British Museum, and drawings made in the mid-19th century by Count Frédéric-Maximilien de Waldeck, based on a set of the engravings found, he said, in a Mexican convent, seem likely to be genuine reconstructions. They conform both with the British Museum fragments and with an edition in which the original engravings have been copied as woodcuts – the illustration here is taken from it – which Lynne Lawner supposes to have been produced in Venice around 1527. The unique surviving copy of this edition was found in 1928 by Walter Toscanini, son of the conductor. The pages of this book, the de Waldeck drawings, the British Museum fragments, and translations of the sonnets, are all included in Lawner’s book. A foreword by George Szabo relates the images of I Modi to the history of erotic art, and traces their use as sources by, for example, majolica-makers.’


Peter Campbell, 18 May 1989

The transition from mixture to emulsion in fiction (or in mayonnaise) is magical. The process is delicate. When fiction curdles, and globules of pure fact rise to the surface, the dishomogeneity annoys. Some reviewers of Anthony Burgess’s new novel say it has curdled: ‘so let’s say he does know all Walton’s percussion parts by heart, and has the Hebrew or the Russian word for almost anything, is he able to use them to tell a better story?’ I think he is. In Any Old Iron facts and characters stick together well enough for larger themes to develop through them. Burgess’s densely referential style helps this to happen rather in the way a realistic set suits some plays. You do not believe there is an actual town beyond the proscenium but it serves to remind you how complicated a real town is. And the complication has its inherent charm – words and percussion-playing are, after all, interesting in their own right.’

Four Walls

Peter Campbell, 20 April 1989

The Picturesque, with its cottages ornées and simulations of Tuscan rusticity, is hard to take seriously. Yet it accompanied a radical change in English architectural thinking. This happens to be easy for us to understand – a similar change in sensibility is going on now.


Peter Campbell, 5 January 1989

I never knew – I’m not sure I’m pleased to know – that a gull fed an Alka Seltzer sandwich will explode. That, along with a lot of information about what is done to a lifeguard who loses his man, comes in From Rockaway. The Letter of Marque has an account of 18th-century opium dosages. Tracks is informative about the cultural anthropology of the American Indian. Klara incorporates material for a historical essay about post-war Vienna. Facts give verisimilitude, but tend to diminish status. Detail can get the fraudulent a long way, as is proved by true stories of con men and their patter; and that may be one reason why novels of expertise, where subject-matter determines genres, are suspect.’

So, puss, I shall know you another time

Peter Campbell, 8 December 1988

Evolution does a wonderful job on eyes. In the matter of seeing in dim light, for example, we are not just supplied with a good tool, but with the very best the system – the rest of the body – will allow. A recent paper in Nature describes work on human and toad perception. Humans are very sensitive – a dozen or so photons are enough to trigger dim sensation; but toads will make a strike at a moving target at light levels where humans can see nothing. The best explanation of the difference between ourselves and toads seems to lie in our higher blood temperature. This sets the level of random change in the photoreceptor molecules – the level of background ‘noise’ – which in turn determines the level below which seeing is impossible.’

Wright and Wrong

Peter Campbell, 10 November 1988

Those who have tried to make sense of Frank Lloyd Wright’s own account of his life will be grateful to Brendan Gill. He relieves us of doubts about our intelligence. As you read the Autobiography much does not quite fit. The feeling grows on you, as it must on the victims of confidence tricksters, that you cannot follow the story because you are stupid. Gill makes it clear that Wright was a fluent liar, an inventor and arranger of his past, and a re-writer of history.


Peter Campbell, 4 August 1988

I was in Los Angeles this spring on the day Richard Feynman died. The next morning I saw a banner lowered from the top of the tower block which stands in the middle of the Caltech campus. It read: ‘WE LOVE YOU DICK.’ The obituary of Feynman in the LA Times was awed and affectionate. It listed his achievements – his work in physics, the Nobel Prize it earned him and his work on the nuclear bomb. It also recalled his reputation as a womaniser, a drummer and a teacher, and the broadcast hearings of the inquiry into the Challenger disaster, and how Feynman demonstrated what might have gone wrong: he called for a glass of ice water, dunked in it for a few minutes a piece of the rubber used to seal the joints between the rocket stages, and showed how it had lost all its resilience. This example of practical science caught the imagination of the country in the same way that his lectures caught the imagination of students at Caltech. Here was the Sane Scientist – the heir of Benjamin Franklin. Feynman appears several times in Ed Regis’s wonderful book about the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (the members of which often appear in the Mad Scientist mode) as an advocate of worldly engagement. His words head an epilogue which asks difficult questions about the productivity of ivory towers:’

New Looks, New Newspapers

Peter Campbell, 2 June 1988

Neville Brody is advertised as the most influential graphic designer of his generation, which means something in a Britain where we have at last found what we are really good at: charming money out of each other. If appetites are not refreshed, the clothes racked in Next and the produce tumbling from supermarket horns of plenty will be food for the moth and the worm. When the words and images which sharpen desire themselves need sharpening, the graphic artist (or copywriter, or director) is called in to examine the entrails for signs of which dreams will ring tills. If you are losing the style wars, and the true guerrillas of graphics are unwilling to rally to the flag, you can at least borrow their tactics. So Brody, whose launch-pad was the independent fringe of the record business and whose orbiting vehicle was the fashion/art/interview magazine The Face, found his recipes borrowed and his mannerisms aped in work with which he had no sympathy. His revolutionary war-cries and banners were misunderstood and plagiarised at the same time. In his account of Brody’s work Jon Wozencroft describes how The Face ‘combined pop consumerism with a critique of its culture … both questioned and celebrated the growing profusion of styles in the same breath – the worst effects of “Style Culture” in the same issue that included items on “radical footwear” and “travelling hats” ’. The ambivalence this description identifies shows up in Brody’s comments on the place of design in communication. Both The Graphic Language of Neville Brody and The Making of the ‘Independent’ cast light on the relationship between writing and the medium of print. The magazines Brody has designed and the Independent are at opposite ends of the spectrum of style, but in both cases graphic design allows scanning (as against reading), and allows those buyers who read very little of the continuous text to feel that they have had their money’s worth from the paper.’

Pleasing himself

Peter Campbell, 31 March 1988

In his grand old age Rodin became a notorious toucher. One account has it that ‘in the course of a conversation he would embrace every breast and phallus within reach,’ his large hands recapitulating the act of modelling – unless it was modelling that recapitulated touching. Frederic Grunfeld suggests that Rodin’s tactile exploration of the world was in part at least a consequence of his congenital short sight. Whatever the truth of that, the bodies he made were not a product of clinical objectivity, and Pygmalion-like ambiguities concerning the relation of flesh to clay abound. It makes it hard to place him: he had allies among the Impressionists, but his work makes more sense when viewed in a tradition which includes Carpeaux, or even Sargent.’


Peter Campbell, 21 January 1988

The red fox is found throughout Europe, Asia and North America. It was introduced to Australia, although Tasmania is fox-less as the brace which hunting military men took there were destroyed. Foxes live in deserts and cities as well as in the hunting shires. They are opportunists, and not loved for it. Plain hunting has a long history: fancy persecutions were invented later. In 18th-century Germany fox-tossing was fashionable: ‘foxes were persuaded to run over narrow slings of webbing of which one end was held by a gentleman, the other by a lady. The “players” tossed the fox as it walked the tightrope – a good toss being up to twenty-four feet high. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was an enthusiastic fox-tosser and is reputed to have tossed to death some 687 foxes in one session.’ But hunters were also early systematic observers. Edward, second Duke of York, in his Master of the Game noticed what David Macdonald’s research has confirmed: foxes eat worms. As it became a more respectable quarry the fox was pampered: its habitat was protected, its enemy, the farmer with chickens, bought off, and the long argument between preservers of game and chasers of foxes began. An 18th-century hound-breeder said that ‘the murder of foxes is a most absurd prodigality.’ Those who hunt animals find the fox such a satisfying quarry that if hunting with hounds does die out it is more likely to be as a result of intensive farming – wire and spring clover do not go well with jumping horses – than thanks to the efforts of hunt saboteurs. Foxes in cold climates dress too warmly for safety, but even the British trade in fox furs peaked at over fifty thousand pelts in the late Seventies,’

Sea Creatures

Peter Campbell, 23 July 1987

Sidney Nolan was born in Melbourne in 1916. His father was on the trams, but did rather better at illegal bookmaking. They were Irish, working-class, lapsed Catholics. Sidney left school at 14 and spent his late teens in irregular employment and part-time art education. He could not draw well enough for Mr Leyshon-White’s commercial art agency, so he ran the correspondence course. He enjoyed writing to rural amateurs telling them how bad their work was. Later he made advertising displays and did a little modelling for a hat company. He read a great deal, and made illustrations for Joyce’s Ulysses, which was banned and could only be read at the National Library. He lived for a while in a ‘weekender’ (a cottage in the bush) and tried to stow away on a ship to Britain. By the time he was 21 he had worked as cook in a hamburger bar, helped lead a strike in the hat factory, and married.

Solus lodges at the Tate

Peter Campbell, 4 June 1987

It was wet on the night of the opening of the new Turner galleries. The fireworks celebrating the occasion made the clouds of misty rain substantial. Reflections in the windows of the dismal wall of offices which faces the Tate across the Thames mixed with car lights and street lamps. A crowd from the party inside gathered on the steps under umbrellas. The bigger starbursts were applauded, much as the flames bursting through the roof of the Lords’ chamber were applauded by the crowd watching the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. The fireworks roused the sense of the sublime from the distant thicket in the 20th-century mind to which it has retreated.


Peter Campbell, 7 May 1987

That Patrick O’Brian would write a good book about the early life of Joseph Banks was to be expected. Banks combined the enthusiasm and practical competence of one of O’Brian’s fictional heroes, Jack Aubrey, with the passion for natural history of another, Stephen Maturin. Moreover O’Brian’s accounts in his novels of 18th-century seamanship are, like Tolstoy’s battle pieces, better historical description than most historians manage: it was clear that the variety of incident in Banks’s voyage to the Great South Sea with Cook, which matches that of any fictional adventure, was a subject made for him. What was not so obvious was that Sir Joseph’s long years of official business, as President of the Royal Society and member of various boards and committees, would be made, if anything, more interesting than the excitements of young Banks’s few years of active exploration. The book, like Reynolds’s picture of Banks in his twenties, which O’Brian much admires, is an attractive portrait. It is continuously interesting and coloured by the cheerfulness of a lucky subject.

Agreeing with Berger

Peter Campbell, 19 March 1987

John Berger is 60. He is not forgotten. Permanent Red, his criticism from the Fifties, is in print. Ways of Seeing is the antidote put in the hands of students who have drunk too deeply of Courtauld art history. His novels, too, have created a stir. His first, A Painter of Our Time, had such vitriolic reviews that the publishers withdrew it, and G won the Booker Prize: Berger’s hard swallow on that sugarplum made him briefly notorious. His behaviour was un-English – but that was to be expected, for his work had never fitted English pigeonholes. In A Fortunate Man he and Jean Mohr produced a report from rural England which, like Let us now praise famous men, Agee’s report from the American Dust Bowl, imposed a solemn simplicity on its subject (Mass-Observation would have been nosier). G is an un-English mix of fiction and essay-like elements. His fiction has been didactic and his criticism passionate. He is also adaptable: as well as half a dozen novels and volumes of essays there have been television programmes and films. This varied body of work hangs together. The epigraph to the first chapter of Geoff Dyer’s book, a quotation from 1956 – ‘I am a political propagandist … But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter’ – could apply equally well to the later work at the other end of the book.’


Peter Campbell, 4 December 1986

The earliest buildings in the 42nd volume of the Survey of London are late 17th and early 18th-century houses in Kensington Square. The market gardens and nurseries which surrounded this urban housing disappeared rather slowly, as land to the south of Kensington High Street was developed. The modest scale of the brick houses of Kensington Square, the neat brick and stucco of Edwardes Square (1811-25) and the Italian-villa-like elevations of Launceton Place (1840-3) gave way to cliffs of Italianate stucco (like Cornwall Gardens, late 1860s) and the red-and-yellow-brick mansion blocks of the 1880s and 1890s. These now dominate: this is Victorian London.

The New Lloyd’s

Peter Campbell, 24 July 1986

Richard Rogers’s new Lloyd’s building in London has begun business, to predictable complaints. A Guardian journalist asking for off-the-cuff comments from underwriters found them grumpy – the only appreciative voice was foreign and female. That is not surprising: the new Lloyd’s is an architectural statement of un-English vehemence. Un-modern-English, one corrects oneself, passing St Mary Woolnoth’s rusticated walls as one heads down Lombard Street to get another view of Lloyd’s.’

Someone Else

Peter Campbell, 17 April 1986

The first picture in Richard Avedon’s folio is captioned ‘Alan Silvey, drifter, Route 93, Chloride, Nevada’. Such photographs were taken in the Dustbowl fifty years ago. But this is art, not documentation. We have learned a lot about photography since the Thirties, and now no one believes that truth is simple – ‘all photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth’ is Avedon’s way of putting it. On the other hand, no one really doubts that photography is art. Meanwhile, in these pictures of the anonymous and deprived, ethnography and fashion join hands.’

English Art and English Rubbish

Peter Campbell, 20 March 1986

In England, where the opposite can easily seem to be the case, there is always someone around to say that the visual arts matter. Not just that they are life-enhancing or give pleasure, but that they are a test of the health of a society. Bad art means bad lives are being lived. Good policies will be known by the art they encourage. The works C.R. Ashbee is remembered for – a couple of original if slightly awkward houses in Chelsea, some pretty silver and jewellery of an almost Art Nouveau sinuousness, some indifferent private press books – would not by themselves have warranted a book on the scale of Alan Crawford’s admirable biography. It is Ashbee’s attempts to give practical expression to the idea that art matters that make Crawford’s apology for a book ‘more ponderous than its subject deserves’ unnecessary.’


Peter Campbell, 5 December 1985

Squawks are heard all over London these days from newly-fledged birds being pushed off the twig. The reasons for not leaving home multiply: no money, no job, rents high, flats scarce. With the decay of the old custom of not fornicating under the parental roof the strongest reason for having a place of your own has gone. Forced contiguity is exacerbated by the New Frankness. The children of the Sixties (the ones born then) have a view of the infantile passions, the neurotic insecurity, and the vulnerability, of their parents which might accompany a severe scepticism about all human relationships. Have age and experience done nothing for these parents? they ask. Their younger brothers and sisters, born in the Seventies, have even worse cases to manage. But at least they now have a laureate.

Homage to André Friedmann

Peter Campbell, 7 November 1985

In November 1938 Picture Post devoted 11 pages to pictures of a Loyalist attack on Insurgent troops outside Barcelona. They described one, showing men sheltering from falling shells, as ‘the most amazing war picture ever taken’. The caption to the full-page portrait of the photographer read ‘The Greatest War-Photographer in the World: Robert Capa’. Life also ran the story and described how Capa had crossed the river Segre with the troops the night before the action.


Peter Campbell, 4 July 1985

It is only fair to preface anything you write about Degas with a few of his own remarks. He challenges you to prove relevance and competence. He wanted to be ‘illustrious and unknown’, and wrong-foots biographers by making their curiosity seem prurient or irrelevant. He thought most writing about art ignorant and unnecessary: ‘I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art,’ he said to George Moore, ‘and they have not understood … but among people who understand words are not necessary: you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.’ Critics not only rush in where there is nothing to be said, what they do say is glib: ‘Painting is not difficult when you do not know anything about it. But when you know, oh, it’s something quite different.’ Biographers have no easy task. There is plenty of material: notebooks, letters – which have some of the combative quality of his table talk. But he was a difficult man, in whose life protective colouring and character are hard to distinguish. In a notebook he kept in his twenties he wrote: ‘The heart is an instrument which rusts if it is not used. Without a heart can one be an artist?’’

Illustrating America

Peter Campbell, 21 March 1985

The landmarks of New York – the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the Rockefeller and World Trade Centres – have no ceremonial public function. Victories are consecrated in the streets, with ticker-tape falling. And New York painting is like New York celebrations: it has not been made for palaces and chapels. Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island bathers were its Three Graces, George Bellows’s boxers its Laocoon. But then in the late Forties Abstract Expressionism came, producing something with the scale and power of public art, although these paintings, like the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre, were self-referential. They did not glorify the city, or victories, or political alliances, or history, or the land, but the artist himself and his creativity: art galleries apart, was there a natural home for them?’

Crotchet Castles

Peter Campbell, 6 December 1984

The almost universal extra-professional unpopularity of architects (what other Royal Institution could the Prince of Wales put the boot into with such sure expectation of applause?) is no new phenomenon. Distrust of the man who knows what you want better than you know it yourself goes back at least as far as the 17th century. Roger North, an amateur architect whose only substantial extant work is the gateway to the Middle Temple, wrote a treatise on building in the mid-169Os. It trenchantly affirms amateur virtues: ‘where a man builds for his owne use, none can contrive well but himself. I exclude not councell … but the owner must pronounce.’ He complains of the inability of ‘surveyors’ to keep control over work in progress and observes that they will ‘practice their owne whims, at your cost. They having viewed many fabricks, in life, and in draught, with the ornaments of the antique and moderne invention, have a world of crotchetts of their owne … all which they have an itch to put in execution, and it is miraculous if they doe it not the first opportunity of building they are employed in. And lett a man arme himself what he can, they will argue and perswade him beyond his intentions.’ North conceded that great undertakings were not to be left to amateurs, but his belief that a gentleman with a little enthusiasm and education could build as well as a professional makes architecture seem complicated, but not mysterious.

Star Turn

Peter Campbell, 2 August 1984

This is a complicated novel but a simple story. Kate is having an affair, has been for years, with Jake. It seems to be over:

England’s End

Peter Campbell, 7 June 1984

They should be called the Kondratieff Laureates. Fifty years ago, when the economic cycle last hit bottom, J.B. Priestley made his English Journey. A few years later Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, and Edwin Muir Scottish Journey. Now, as the succeeding wave reaches the bottom of its downward swing, the BBC send out Bainbridge to follow Priestley, and James Campbell records travels which were in the spirit, if not the footsteps of Muir. Why novelists? Perhaps because it is reckoned that they will give a human dimension to the changes documented in unemployment statistics and land-use maps.

Francis and Vanessa

Peter Campbell, 15 March 1984

In Elizabeth Taylor’s novel The Wedding Group, published in 1968, there is a grand old painter called Harry Bretton. He is modelled, I would guess, on Eric Gill, for the Life, and Stanley Spencer, for the Work. Musing by the studio window, he considers his place in history:

End of the Road

Peter Campbell, 17 March 1983

Charlatans spread scepticism. Frauds unmasked make critics look fools. When new work looks very simple, and very easy to do, eyes narrow and muttering starts about the emperor’s new clothes. The gap, between those willing to take risks and those unwilling to look fools, widens. Lawrence Weschler’s life of the Californian artist Robert Irwin is the best description I know of why spending months deciding how to put two orange lines on an orange square, or why offering a strip of black tape round the skirting of a gallery as your contribution to an exhibition, could be serious, intellectually-taxing activities. Enough critics have seen in Irwin’s work what he said he was trying to put there for communication at some level to have been established. For us, the success of what he has done is something which must be taken on trust. Much of Irwin’s work was ephemeral; those pieces now in public galleries are, we are told, displayed in ways which nullify the effects they were made to produce. Photographs are beside the point. The works depend on those things – scale, texture, the third dimension – which photography can record but not recreate. Yet the life would have been worth writing even if the work was not worth seeing.

Editor’s Story

Peter Campbell, 18 November 1982

When Tom Hopkinson was nine years old his father called the family together. He had decided, he said, to become a clergyman. Later he told his son that he had been persuaded to take this long-contemplated step by hearing a sermon ‘so distracted and confused that he had realised the clergyman delivering it must be overwhelmed with the burden of his work.’ He had seen that the only thing to do was to go out and help him. So the Hopkinson family was translated from the comfortable life of a lecturer in Classical archaeology in the University of Manchester to the comparative hardships of an industrial parish. The need to serve was in the blood: Tom’s sister Esther spent most of her life as a missionary in South Africa and Rhodesia, his brother Stephan became a clergyman. Tom edited Picture Post.

Green Minna

Peter Campbell, 7 October 1982

George Grosz made the drawings and paintings for which he will be remembered during the First World War and in the Twenties and Thirties. In his autobiography (first published in German in 1955), Old Grosz looks back at Young Grosz, and considers the change of direction which came in his work when he went to America. ‘My life in America began with an inner confrontation – a confrontation with my past. It taught me that caricatures are prized chiefly in periods of cultural decline, that life and death are too fundamental to be subjects of mockery and cheap jibes.’ The lesson was only half-learned. The best parts of his book are coloured by a taste for grotesque detail which recalls his earlier drawings rather than his later ones, and it is never clear how far he rejects, or regrets, his early work. He can be ironical about his desire to float along in the warm stream of American popular illustration: ‘My new motto was: harm none and please all. Assimilation comes easily when you have rejected the common superstition that character is of supreme importance. “Character” does duty as a synonym for inflexibility, and anyone anxious to get on in life had best dispense with it altogether.’ It is sad, almost comical, that the ‘Mild Monster’ (Time’s description) should have expected to find a place for his kind of drawing in the New Yorker – yet one can understand how the bitter taste of his talents could have failed to please him. There is no reason to believe he is being satirical when he writes that ‘even when I was following along insane Dadaist paths or making “angular” expressionist drawings and paintings I had kept sneaking looks over my shoulder at normal true-to-life illustrations. This was genuine art for the masses … I preferred their saccharine quality to those outpourings of acid, of bogus colours and forms that paraded under the name of modern art.’

Scenes from the Movies

Peter Campbell, 5 August 1982

The photographs of Louise Brooks in Lulu in Hollywood show a face as beautiful, and almost as unchanging, as a Japanese mask. Both praise and criticism notice this inexpressiveness: ‘Louise Brooks exists with an overwhelming insistence … always enigmatically impassive,’ ‘Louise Brooks cannot act … she does not suffer … she does nothing.’ Her writing, on the other hand, is painfully self-revealing. Sometimes funny, sometimes angry, she is unfailingly perceptive about the arts of acting and film-making. The description of Pabst’s direction of Pandora’s Box is one of the best things in the book:


Peter Campbell, 18 March 1982

You know a Pre-Raphaelite picture when you see one, but definitions come hard. The paintings are likely to be detailed, but Rossetti’s are soft and generalised; they often take subjects from English poetry or the Bible, but can be pure landscapes, or illustrations of Greek myths, or even about modern politics. The Pre-Raphaelite programme – to replace an exhausted tradition, of painterly conventionalities and trivial subject-matter, with a style which paid close attention to the detail of natural appearances and took themes of an aesthetically and morally elevated sort – is clear enough. The results evoke responses which are nothing like as simple.


Peter Campbell, 1 October 1981

How many books have I read? Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred …? I could compile a list. But what would it tell me? What I know? What I have forgotten? What I was? What I wanted to be? What my mother and father wanted and expected and expect me to be? Millions of Cats, Goodnight Moon, Caps for Sale, Where the wild things are, The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Stuart Little, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, The Little Prince, Member of the Wedding, Gigi, Lord of the Flies, Return of the Native

A Better Life

Peter Campbell, 2 April 1981

The ‘homes fit for heroes’ of Mark Swenarton’s title – or some relation of them – can be found on the outskirts of almost any British town. Yet they are more seen than noticed, and it may take a description to bring them to mind: ‘two-storey cottages, built in groups of four or six, with medium or low-pitched roofs and little exterior decoration, set amongst gardens, trees, privet hedges and grass verges, and often laid out in cul-de-sacs or around greens’. They enter architectural history as a footnote, to the English vernacular and Georgian revivals, or the Garden City movement, but appear in social history as an impressive statistic: one family in 20 still lives in this kind of inter-war council housing.

The Loneliness Thing

Peter Campbell, 5 February 1981

Edward Hopper’s 1920 etching ‘Les Deux Pigeons’

Back to back

Peter Campbell, 4 December 1980

Chapter Four of Mary Lutyens’s memoir of her father finds her parents at Scheveningen, on their honeymoon. ‘For the first week they sat back to back on the beach in two of those old-fashioned high-backed basket chairs, she facing towards the sea and he towards the land, reaching back uncomfortably to hold hands. For the second week he took her sight-seeing when she was so sore from his love-making that she could hardly walk and felt that she should have been resting.’ They had already found two incompatibilities: Emily was to go on finding Edwin’s sexual demands repugnant, and Edwin was never to share Emily’s enthusiasm for the seaside (like half an apple, he said).

Taking pictures

Peter Campbell, 3 July 1980

When the young Steichen photographed Rodin’s ‘Balzac’ by moonlight in 1908, the sculptor gave him 2,000 francs. Steichen was being treated as an equal: Rodin’s skilled studio assistants were at this time being paid 60 francs a week. Not all photographers who worked with Rodin were treated so well, but because he wanted his work to be known through prints which he had approved, and because he used photography as a way of looking freshly at that work, the collection of photographs in the archives of the Musée Rodin is of absorbing interest. In this selection by Albert Elsen they are published for the first time; they reveal much about Rodin’s methods of work, and many of them are magisterial interpretations of his sculpture. But the book is also a contribution to the history of photography, and it is the light it throws on the relationship between works of art and photographs that concerns me here.

Pretty Things

Peter Campbell, 21 February 1980

The literature of pre-literacy reaches