Swept off your feet

Words by Martin Holman


Absorbed by painter Jeffery Camp’s poetic vision.

View of the Jeffery Camp exhibition at Kestle Barton


In 1981 the British artist Jeffery Camp wrote a widely acclaimed book, a how-to manual titled Draw. It became a classic, encouraging its many readers to learn by copying great artworks. David Hockney wrote the foreword and Camp created all the illustrations, cementing his status as a phenomenal draughtsman in the process.

‘Beachy Head, Spectacular Drop’, 1972 Oil on canvas on board

Camp stressed the importance of drawing in sharpening observation. By looking carefully, we explore beyond the shapes we expect to see and find what is actually there – in our surroundings as much as in art. “Drawing,” Camp wrote, “can open the door and raise that useful extra eyelid which, like that possessed by certain lizards, is in humans the inhibiting, cribbed, confining, narrow-browed, vertical thinking curtain eyelid of conformity.”

‘Beachy Head, Spectacular Drop’, 1972 Oil on canvas on board

Conformity is not a word that fits this artist’s work. Camp had an idiosyncratic approach and a visionary style. This country has produced many painters of the imagination over the centuries who sit uncomfortably within standard categories. Camp was one of these – an outsider inside the art establishment. A Royal Academician who exhibited often in the capital, he was a romantic with one eye firmly focused on celebrating life in a world of increasing cynicism. His paintings lifted the boundary between reality and dreaming so that the two co-exist in one image.

Jeffery Camp in his London studio

‘South Downlands’, 1990. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

A fine example is South Downlands. This huge canvas was completed in 1990 and, at just over nine feet across, feels large enough to envelop the body and mind of anyone looking at the extraordinary scene that unfolds within it. We become immersed in a tumultuous vision of landscape, sea and sky. The viewpoint is so high we could be flying – just like the nude figures whose joyous aerial gymnastics appear to whip nature itself into infectious rhythms of rapture.

The couple in the picture closest to us hold hands in an arcing backflip through space; for a moment we wonder if they are about to spring out of the frame into our own real space. Their elation has already transferred to the people who gather and dance on the grassy promontory. At first, they are hard to pick out among the flowers and above the waves; they merge into continuous movement. Because Camp perceived the same spirit in every element of his pictures, the same mobile, sensuous lines that have drawn the figures, also form the ground they stand on and the currents of air above. He seldom needed more than a few lines and some deftly brushed brief marks to give a scene its substance and feeling.


Left, ‘Snail, Beachy Head’. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery, right, ‘Lilac’, 2014. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

This summer, South Downlands spans an entire wall of the gallery at Kestle Barton for its exhibition dedicated to Jeffery Camp’s paintings. This ancient farmstead is now the location for art exhibitions and events, created by Karen Townshend. The exhilarating rural setting between Manaccan and the Helford River is shared with holiday cottages clustered around the converted stone buildings and shielded by trees. Camp would have approved; he once remarked that “in summer I like [London’s] Green Park to be full of spread-eagled bodies, honey golden and pink, half tanned against leafy green, seen from a deckchair”.

‘Beachy Head, Magpies at Evening’, 1973 Oil on canvas

Not surprisingly, the title of the show is Some People Dream A Lot. The pairing of Camp’s paintings with the venue’s informal garden and wildflower meadow for the warm Cornish summer months is inspired. One suits the other like a glove because, according to John Craxton, a leading figure among Neo-Romantic artists in post-war Britain, Camp was a “rare poetic painter of delight whose radiant visions never cease to amaze and give pleasure”. The exhibition is a small selection of oil paintings from Camp’s long career. The artist died almost a year ago, aged 96, but he painted with the vigour and risk-taking inventiveness of someone two generations younger. Appropriately, therefore, this show – the first since Camp’s death – is the choice of one of these younger painters, Dan Howard-Birt (working with the London art dealer, Michael Richardson, who knew Camp well). Howard-Birt is based in St Just in Penwith and his interest reflects the quiet influence of Camp’s work on his profession. Possibly better known to the general public for his books than his paintings, Camp was held in high regard by fellow artists. The leading London-based figurative painter Jeffrey Dennis is among them: “A landscape painting by Jeffery Camp,” he says, “is a sensory call-to-arms. It is never just about looking at a view; it is a stirring embrace, an embodiment of the experience of being a breathing, sensing person in that landscape.”

Kestle Barton Gallery from the garden

Camp had a favourite landscape. Beachy Head in East Sussex is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. He discovered this dramatic location after he and his then wife, the painter Laetitia Yhap, moved to the south coast in the 1960s. Part of a range of rolling chalk hills and dry valleys of close-cropped turf, this imposing headland featured in his paintings for over 50 years, even after he returned to London.

And despite this painter’s unconventional interpretation, which appears to distil multiple bird’s-eye views into one image, the shoreline geography Camp adopted like an emblem remains recognisable, with its varied flora and sudden descent to the famous red and white striped lighthouse below.

The area’s distinctive character dramatises the atmosphere of ‘Beachy Head, Spectacular Drop’ (1972). The pair in the foreground of this painting stand with the promontory behind and the sea below. While the woman seems poised as she turns her head towards the waves, the man huddles half-hidden beside her. He looks out of the painting to make ambiguous contact with us today, almost 50 years later. In fact, as often happens, the two in the foreground are Camp and Yhap.

Danger seems to stalk them in their exposed position on the cliff. Their hair is blown by a strong wind and the steely grey colours and cold blues accentuate the image’s dizzying viewpoint with a psychological dimension. So does an extra effect, the circular border; its purpose is symbolic, to wrap a tornado-like spectrum of the muted tones around the figures, like the bevelled edge of a spinning coin. The soft chalk of Beachy Head is constantly changing, eroded by the elements and chunks slip to the shore all the time. The cliff is also one of the world’s most notorious suicide spots.

This coastal scenery was a revelation to Camp: “It is a spectacular open space,” he once said, “dramatic and high for a person born in flat lands.”He grew up in his native Suffolk and after art school in Ipswich and Edinburgh, he arrived in London as a young professional artist. He taught for many years at the Slade School of Fine Art where the students found him approachable and ready to listen and talk about their work even when it was entirely unlike his own. His particular style of teaching, based on careful looking, developed there and became the basis of his two popular ‘DIY’ books. (A second volume, called Paint, was published in 1996.) On the coast Camp studied the birds, the weather and the behaviour of walkers. He found a way of portraying these experiences in paint, writing down the qualities that captivated him: the “flowing waters, flowing wind, soaring sails, pulsing hearts, flowing veins, moving gulls, whirring cine films, kicking flints, lurching jackdaws, powdering chalk, gleaming helmets, golden harness, shimmering fabrics of bright colours, the painting and the thrill, are presented to me in an aerial structure without attachment to the closed perspectives of the lowlands of my youth.”

To capture all that, some hallowed traditions had to be trashed. One was perspective, the representation of solid objects on a flat surface that conveys their relative size, shape and distance. When he was writing Draw, Camp recalled for the art critic Andrew Lambirth that “the only chapter 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”. So Camp incorporated several viewpoints into the same picture, often inverting near and far, and mixing up large and small. Another peculiarity is the eccentric shape of his paintings. At Kestle Barton, as well as big rectangular canvases, there are circles and diamond shapes, large irregular edges and surprising wedges of wood onto which the canvas is attached.

Many of the paintings here – and most of the smaller pieces – were made in the last 20 years of Camp’s life. His subject matter varied little during his lifetime with no reduction apparent in his fascination with merging the outward expressiveness of land, air, sea, flowers and the inner life and of people. The universal energy of nature continues to sweep multiple sensations together; only the scale got smaller. Camp was a tentative modernist who always experimented with ways of seeing. Paint was dabbed, dotted and stroked dryly onto canvas, and his colours were always strong and sweet, attuned to pinning down the transient beauty he perceived around him.

Naturally he made many drawings on the spot but reserved painting for the studio. Camp had a fondness for cut flowers and from 2011 he worked on small canvases that pulse with vibrant colour – a subtle irony, perhaps, but true to art history where a cut flower is a reminder of inevitable death; beauty, it means, is no defence against decay. Howard-Birt perceptively points out in the attractive booklet accompanying this show that still-life painting also has a second meaning, about being present.

That vision translates well to Cornwall where the cycle of the seasons is visible in hedgerows and fields, and around its coastline. Indeed, Camp knew the county and featured its sites in one small but brilliant painting. ‘Laetitia and a Cornish Tin Mine’ (1967) is not on show at Kestle Barton because it is a permanent part of Cornwall Council’s schools art collection. Its vivid colours and stylised composition say much about Camp’s ability to innovate. The unusual design anticipates the shapes he went on to give many of his canvases. Laetitia’s is the head on the right and Camp has placed it inside a painted border imitating the outline of an unfolded map. As elsewhere, elusive meanings and connections lie below the surface as well as on top.

Jeffery Camp had an outstanding eye for everyday detail and a lyrical outlook on life. His work has been bought by major collections, such as the Tate and the Arts Council, as well as private individuals who have subscribed to his vision. One prominent American critic described it as “a contemporary form of art-that-hides-art”. At its root is observation with eye and mind, as David Hockney acknowledged in his foreword to Draw when he wrote: “in learning to draw (unlike learning to write) you learn to look. It’s not the beauty of the marks we like in writing, it’s the beauty of the ideas. But in drawing it’s a bit of both – it’s beauty of ideas, of feelings and of marks – and I think Jeffery Camp shows this marvellously well.”

Jeffery Camp, RA: Some People Dream a Lot is at Kestle Barton until 5th September 2021.

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