by Peter Campbell
Profile Books, London, 2012
192 pp., illus. Trade, £30.00
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
When corresponding with the London Review of Books several years ago I told them how much I enjoyed Peter Campbell's watercolor covers. I taught an undergraduate class in beginning watercolor, and I often showed my students examples of Campbell's work. Sometimes there contained a negative example: "He's used opaque white, I want you to leave white paper" or "He's pencilled first, I want you to skip this", but always Campbell's brush gave us something to talk about.
I was saddened to learn of his death in 2011 and also concerned for the paper, the London Review. When David Levine, the great caricaturist and art director for the New York Review of Books died in 2009, I feared that the paper would abandon caricatures (a medium more prevalent in magazines a century ago than now) for the conventional and too-often-unquestioned default, photography. That wasn't the case; a contemporary New York Reviews contain caricatures by students-of-Levine Pancho or John Springs, repurposed 19th c. prints by Felix Valloton or even Levine's favorite Grandville, and a balanced selection of historic and contemporary photography. Similarly, one might think the London Review commanded its recent cover illustrators "make it like Campbell," to look at Alice Sprawls' ink-wash plant silhouettes on the 11 October 2012 issue--so like Campbell's inky trees of 22 September 2011--or Rupert Thomas' eggs in a bowl on the 8 November 2012 cover, evocative of Campbell's spotted birds' eggs of 23 January 1997.
Artwork gives us a fine collection of Campbell, active in the publication from its 1979 beginning until his death. Originally from New Zealand, he relocated to London at age 23 and designed memorable books (including artist monographs) and their covers for numerous publishers. He settled into the role of cover artist for the fortnightly London Review of Books, and evidently relished the variety of ways he could meet the requirements of the format and task.
Some of his watercolors depicted rooms of the house: the library and its ceiling, the corner with the washing machine where laundry inevitably piles up, summer sunlight on a garden gate, a beach cabin or view through its window. Some were the long view, traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, across an expansive St. Mark's Place in Venice, mountains or seas. Covers might imagine a young military cadet, a headwaiter, a pet bird or a suntanned vacationer observing the viewer. Some used thicker paint, bolder strokes, minimal details even non-objective (even quilt-like) compositions. One rare work on the computer made good use of the flat color afforded by its Fill (paintbucket) tools. The last Peter Campbell cover showed a fox walking through his neighborhood and was published weeks after his death; the old fox has departed the premises.
The essays inside might be about foul machinations in 10 Downing Street, the BBC, the White House, Benghazi or Zimbabwe; the cover was always about Peter, his sensibility, what he noticed or composed or invented in a recent moment of his life. They delight, and are distinguished by a lightness, a humility, yet an assertion that an image doesn't have to really be about anything (especially no single thing in this issue of the magazine), it just has to be.
When he wasn't doing London Review covers, Peter Campbell also provided it cheerful cartoons, with (to this mid-American eye) a distinctly British sensibility, in mailings to entice subscribers. In this book there are informative essays by Jeremy Harding and Bill Manhire, colleagues and friends, complementing an inspirational, sadly posthumous, collection. Artwork is a collection that respectfully celebrates a talented designer-illustrator and a memorably skilled, practicing public watercolorist. One who consistently looked very good in print.