Art Beat - George Campbell

Belfast painter who introduced modernist principles into provincial art

When Matthew Campbell, a veteran of the Boer War from Monaghan, retired from the army he applied his business skills to establishing a catering company in Belfast. His financial success was short-lived, however, for he died in 1925 leaving his young wife to bring up their three sons alone.

Gretta Campbell, nee Bowen, a capable, hard-working Dubliner, took in lodgers and ran a laundrette, suppressing personal artistic talents that were to emerge in retirement. Her middle son, George, born in 1917, was boarded at Richview School, a Masonic establishment in Dublin for disadvantaged children.

George Campbell left school at 18 and returned to Belfast where he worked as a clerk in a telegraph office before joining his older brother, Arthur, at W&G Baird, printers of The Belfast Telegraph. Arthur was employed as advertising manager, work that stimulated his artistic leanings, but George had to undergo more formal encouragement to reveal dormant abilities.

His enrolment at evening classes was brief for he found the discipline of still life and life drawing too boring. He had inherited his father’s adventurous spirit and his mother’s artistic confidence, a dynamic fusion that propelled his restless art-making, a hallmark of his painting career.

Photographs of George Campbell show a dapper, slightly-built man with a fashionable pencil-line moustache, which lent him the appearance of a Hollywood movie star. He was endowed with self-assurance, self-belief and a passionate temperament. In March 1943, he exhibited for the first time with his brother Arthur in Mol’s Gallery, Belfast, and that July with Gerard Dillon who became a life-long friend, accomplice and mentor. Fired by these experiences, Campbell determined to make his living solely from painting and in 1944 took the decision that was to drive him hard throughout his life.

The early paintings by George Campbell show an enquiring intellect and eclecticism. He could not accept the moribund qualities of academic art of the period and felt duty-bound as a young rebel to knock down the conventions of picture-making through experimentation. Abstraction was a modernist imperative for it imbued art with an international style and intellectualism, both qualities being significant for any young artist of the age.

Campbell’s first one-man exhibition in the Victor Waddington Gallery, Dublin, in 1945 sold 37 works, and the following spring the same venue witnessed another commercial success when 39 of the 46 works on show sold. Prices ranged from £7.10s to £22.10s, and his varying styles, all with literal titles, depicted street scenes and sombre paintings of the Belfast blitz to figure studies and pub scenes.

International style and a belief in autodidacticism were, in Campbell’s case, wedded to a necessity to communicate with other artists and form working alliances. He helped establish the Progressive Painters Group and the Northern Ireland branch of the Artists International Association in 1944. His success at Waddington’s led to inclusions in the Oireachtas Exhibition and the Irish Exhibition of Living Art.

In 1948 he was included in travelling group exhibitions to New York, Holland and London. In 1951 Gerard Dillon invited Campbell and James MacIntyre to Inishlacken off the Connemara coast where he had a small cottage. This intensive sketching excursion was fruitful for all three painters and is documented in a book by James McIntyre entitled, Three Men on an Island.

In 1942 George Campbell married Margaret McNeill Thompson, and eight years later they took up residence in Dublin. Together with Dillon, they departed for Petregalego, east of Malaga, in 1951, thus beginning a passionate love affair with Spain’s geography and culture. The Campbells spent every winter there and as a consequence George became an accomplished flamenco guitarist and ambassador for the country. At the age of 61 he was awarded the Insignia and Privileges of the Order of the Merito Civile, the equivalent of a British knighthood. Further, this year Malaga is to have a street named after Jorge Campbell.

Two concerns can impede an artist’s development: commercialism and literalism. George Campbell subscribed to both, each influencing the other. ‘I think an abstract must be rich in content. It must have roots, no matter how far these roots go. It must have meaning. I am bored by a few simple shapes that convey nothing to me. Mondrian? He’s just a bore.’

By adopting such a philosophy Campbell carved a mainstream niche for himself in an art market where collectors preferred paintings that did not over-challenge them intellectually but confirmed their cultural sophistication as supporters of Modernism. In 1954 he was appointed an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy and a full member in 1964.

Towards the end of the 1960s Campbell’s popularity at home began to wane. Brian Fallon believed Campbell to be ‘a possessor of an extraordinary fluent and graceful style, a smooth technician and very much a natural painter.’ Mike Catto, writing in 1977, stated, ‘George Campbell’s landscapes are patternmaking of the highest order, intertwined sombre and bright passages have the tactile feel of some of the great woven tapestries.’

John Hewitt, in Painting and Sculpture in Ulster, an essay published in 1951, said Campbell was ‘an interpreter of urban drabness and gloom,’ but he ‘has now enriched his palette and anticipated his design more firmly;’ In 1949 H Neville Roberts had claimed Campbell to be ‘an individualist’ with ‘a total disregard for the conventional’ and a ‘refusal to be hampered even by a style of his own or by laws of his own devising.’

The direction of the Irish avant garde shifted emphasis in the late 60s and in 1972 a new committee was formed to select work for the annual Living Art exhibition. Campbell ceased to exhibit with this grouping in 1968 having consistently shown with it since its inception in 1943. His painting was, however, still acclaimed for in 1969 he was awarded the Oireachtas landscape prize and in 1972 was twice the subject of Profile, a BBC arts programme, and of Things within Things, a film directed by Jim Jones. George Campbell was also featured in an RTE series entitled, Triptych, in 1979.

George Campbell’s painting made a bold impact on Ulster art by forcefully assisting the introduction of modernist principles into a provincial art scene. He was for a brief period a pioneer and revolutionary spirit whose flair and energy helped set a trend for artists’ groupings, a sense of internationalism and adventure through art. By the time he died in 1979, Belfast’s artists had set up artists-run spaces and the city, in spite of the Troubles, had cultivated the type of vibrant art community that was virtually non-existent in the 1940s.

By Peter Haining

Further reading
Making my Mark, an artist’s early life (2001), by James MacIntyre, Blackstaff Press; Three Men on an Island (1996), by James MacIntyre, Blackstaff Press; George Campbell 1917 - 1979: A Retrospective Exhibition, catalogue by the Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, Co Louth; Art in Ulster Vol 2 (1977), Mike Catto, Blackstaff Press; The Arts in Ulster (1951), editors Sam Hanna Bell, Resca A Robb and John Hewitt, George G Harrap Co. Ltd.