A Great Individualist

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, May 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Great Individualist


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Andrew Lambirth talks to Jeffery Camp about the primacy of drawing in an artist's practice

More than 20 years ago, when I first interviewed Jeffery Camp, he forbade me to bring a tape recorder as he would find it off-putting.

'I speak slowly enough for you to write it all down, ' he drawled in measured tones.

Although born in Oulton Broad, Suffolk, and spending his early years in East Anglia, Camp has a placeless accent but a memorable delivery: you can indeed jot down most of his obiter dicta if you're nimble with the stylus. Sitting in his kitchen sipping hot chocolate (he doesn't have coffee) on a balmy spring day, I begin to make notes, but even this, it seems, is inhibiting to his flow. I shall have to be more surreptitious and scribble his bons mots on my shirt cuff.

Now 87, Jeffery Camp is a Grand Old Man of British painting, but still something of a well-kept secret within the confines of the art world. He studied at Lowestoft and Ipswich Art Schools, and then at Edinburgh College of Art (1941-4), where he was taught by the celebrated landscapist William Gillies. As a young professional artist, Camp gravitated to London, first showing at Helen Lessore's famous Beaux Arts Gallery in 1959. Among his friends and contemporaries are Patrick George and Anthony Fry, the late Craigie Aitchison and Euan Uglow. Between 1963 and 1988 he taught at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and exercised a benign and sympathetic effect on generations of students who vie to speak well of him. So concerned was he to ensure the continuance of the principles of what he saw as a proper art education that he undertook the mammoth task of enshrining the essence of his approach in two 'how to do it' manuals.

Draw was published in 1981, and Paint followed in 1986.

Camp says now that there is 'very little I would change' in either of what he calls his technical manuals, both of which were international bestsellers, though rather surprisingly they've subsequently been allowed to go out of print. He recalls writing chapters on demand for the publishers Dorling Kindersley, dictating much of it over the telephone. 'The only one I jibbed at was on perspective, because I had to say why it was bad. I couldn't get on with perspective.

It goes against the natural touch of the eye.

You know as well as I that railway tracks don't go to a point.' Camp has his own take on many received ideas, but still believes in the primacy of drawing in an artist's practice.

In his south London home, he has various studios on different floors. He might draw a bird 'behaving badly' on a scrap of envelope while he's in the kitchen, but painting is generally reserved for a ground-floor room at the front of the house, or for his first-floor studio-cum-living room.

This first-floor studio is cluttered with furniture: comfy chairs, two easels, a litter of paint tubes, brushes and palette knives, two plan chests full of drawings, a loudly ticking clock, drawing boards, mirrors, and his father's Windsor chair with wooden stilts to make it higher. On the walls are a number of small oddly shaped paintings on board, depicting moments in the life of the world observed and interpreted by Camp. The colours glow, and the drawing takes you at once to the heart of the scene. Camp is a superb vignettist, but he also paints on a grand scale, often working on canvases 10-feet wide. …

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