Arthur Campbell

Centenary exhibition of the artist and photographer's work at the Linen Hall Library

Arthur Campbell. You may not know the name but you certainly have seen his work – whether it is the well-known Massey Ferguson badge which he designed, or one of his illuminating black and white photographs of pre (and post) war Belfast. Landscape painter, photographer, designer, illustrator, writer, Campbell was a bona fide renaissance man, and, on the centenary of his birth, the Linen Hall library is hosting a retrospective of his work.

‘Arthur is not quite as well known as he should be,’ says Kelly-Anne Collins, the arts and cultural programming officer at the Linen Hall. Certainly both his younger brother, George, and his mother, the primitive painter Gretta Bowen, are more celebrated in the Irish art world, but stand in front of one of Arthur Campbell’s intricate watercolours or beautifully composed photographs and there is no doubting his talent.

Spread across four floors - well, four landings - of the Linen Hall library, the exhibition includes examples of Campbell’s oil and watercolour paintings, photographs and even cameras and sketchbooks that he used. ‘Through all these different media and objects you get to see the man behind the work. It gives you a sense of who he was as well as an artist,’ explains Collins.

Arthur Campbell was born in Shaftesbury Avenue in Belfast, though he spent his first nine years in Dublin and Arklow, County Wicklow. Campbell began working aged 15 with Belfast printing firm W G Baird before moving on to advertising, where he specialised in advertising motor vehicles and agricultural machinery.

Although he attended some life drawing night classes at the Art College in Belfast, Campbell was mainly self-taught. He read every available book on drawing and painting, and bought magazines to keep in touch with contemporary trends while he spent his days working for, amongst others, The Belfast Telegraph and Charles Hurst Motors.

Such regular employment is, of course, atypical for an artist, and throughout his life he had to struggle to make time for painting and photography. ‘He was very disciplined about his work. Every night he would lock himself away for a couple of hours and work on a painting, or on his sketches or on the articles he wrote,’ Collins continues.

Campbell did receive some recognition for his work during his lifetime. In 1950, he had his first solo show, at 55a Donegall Place. This exhibition included five works in oil and 27 watercolours, and the foreword to the catalogue was written by no less than John Hewitt.

The venerable Ulster poet wrote enthusiastically of Campbell’s paintings: ‘In the stonework of old bridges, the shapes of twisted metal, in weathered and battered brick surfaces rather more emphatically than in the more conventional play of foliage and whitewash he has found his deepest interest.’

Campbell continued to exhibit throughout the rest of his life, but remained remarkably modest about his talent. ‘He was quite a quiet, humble man,’ says Collins. ‘He wasn’t the type of person to shout from the rooftops about his ability but when you look at the work that is currently hanging (in the Linen Hall), and the response to it, it is a real gem.’

A keen observer and recorder of what was going on around him, his poignant, beautifully composed black and white photographs document Belfast in the 1930 and 1940s. ‘They have a social historic aspect. They are clear and powerful in their representation of that time,’ Collins says of the photographs on display at the Linen Hall.

‘He was aware that he was documenting the people, the places and the atmosphere of Belfast at that time.’

Arthur Campbell’s Belfast is long gone but thanks to his photographs, and this remarkable exhibition, it will never be forgotten. If there is any justice in this world, Campbell’s contribution to art in Northern Ireland will no longer be overlooked either.

Peter Geoghegan

Arthur Campbell: Artist and Photographer runs at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast until December 19. For more information check out CultureLive! listings here.