Issue Number: 106
For Jeffery Camp RA every room in his south London house is his studio, with paintings and drawings from his seven decades as an artist adorning all of the wall space. Fiona Maddocks takes a tour
Jeffery Camp RA takes a break from painting at his south London home, with 'Thames', the large painting on the wall behind Photograph by Eamonn McCabe
With downy white beard, flat cap and tweed jacket the man who opens the front door could have stepped out of the corner of one of Jeffery Camp RA’s paintings. ‘Yes, I often inhabit my work,’ he says, gently and quizzically, feeling no need to explain. This is his style: modest and wry. ‘Sometimes I put myself in. Sometimes not.’
Inside the house, part of a standard three-storey Victorian terrace, Camp’s dream-like images crowd the walls. His poetic swirls of colour, at once lyrical and delicate – some vast, some tiny – take inspiration from sea, shore, field and street. Many are painted on asymmetrical lozenges made of wood and canvas, which he crafts himself. Sometimes he fits these odd shapes together like a section of lopsided honeycomb. ‘I enjoy the way, when you stick them side by side, that they turn into something else.’ A large painting, precipitous in its hurtling union of sea, cliff and sky is immediately recognisable as Beachy Head, one of his favourite subjects.
He says he moved to his current house in Stockwell, south London a long time ago: ‘I haven’t really any idea when. I used to live at Clapham Common. But that felt too far away. I wanted to be closer to Piccadilly.’ We pass through to a north-facing front room. A recently completed work covers most of one wall, almost too big to view properly. ‘It’s called Collision,’ he notes, then pauses. ‘At least it is for the moment.’ Two small heads are visible in a tempest of thick, dark paint glinting with splashes of cobalt violet, a tube of which lies on a small table. He waves an elongated brush. ‘This is how I reach the top of the canvas.’ Not much deters him when it comes to work.
Yet when Camp was first approached for this interview, his response was puzzling: ‘I don’t have a studio,’ he said, as if surprised that anyone might think he did. At 86 years old, with seven decades’ worth of work to his name, he could reasonably be thought to have retired, a designated painting space no longer required. Plainly he is as busy as ever. What did he mean? ‘I don’t have a specially built space. I have a house which is my studio, and it’s where I live and where I work.’
On the top floor, an eyrie-like room painted in midnight blue looks out over the small, overgrown garden, from where he likes to sketch birds. A drawing of a puffed up pigeon lies by the window. Art books line the shelves on the walls, a reminder of his quarter of a century as an inspired teacher at the Slade, his technical insights captured in two books, Draw: How to Master the Art (1981) and Paint (1986). Some of that knowledge, in quirky, haiku-like captions, can be found in his new book Almanac, part catalogue, part visual memoir, published by the Royal Academy this May.
Elsewhere, a forest of upturned brushes, tightly stacked, betrays a passion for acquiring the tools of his trade. Up the stairs, a wall is devoted to works by friends: Euan Uglow, Craigie Aitchison and Camp’s teacher at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1940s, the Scottish landscape artist William Gillies.
Camp, who has always found his own quiet brand of exoticism close to home, works chiefly in a first-floor room filled with plan chests, chairs, a TV, spray cans, a book on Blake and a few odd socks ‘because they make good rags’ (not to be mistaken for his laundry, which hangs neatly in the kitchen, where he stores several varieties of dark chocolate and not much else).
Camp was born near Lowestoft, Suffolk, an only child who credits some of his first interest in shape and structure to his father. ‘People always describe him as a cabinet maker, but he did far more. He was a sort of antiques dealer. He loved making his own model planes out of balsa wood, glue and elastic. Most of the time they got stuck in trees. I found it rather boring but it got us out into the countryside.’ His mother was a nurse in the Second World War, then ‘did what women did. Cooked, cleaned and looked after us’.
At one time Camp was married to the artist Laetitia Yhap, who features in much of his work. They had a house in Hastings, near the cliffs, where she still lives. That was when he grew to love the dramatic chalk coastline where the South Downs meet the sea. A particularly striking image of his, now owned by the British Council, shows the couple, their heads small and windswept, at the bottom of an expanse of his beloved Beachy Head. ‘When we lived in Hastings, I used to go there in a Morris Minor Traveller and I would stop off to paint, canvas in the front propped on the steering wheel, me in the back leaning over the seats and painting.’
Nowadays, he gets friends to take him there from London or goes on the train, to feed his enduring love of the place. Was he attracted by Beachy Head’s dark reputation? ‘No. I love it for its beauty, and the birds and cliffs and sea. It is a spectacular open space, dramatic and high for a person born in flat lands. I never saw anyone jump, although I did once see an old woman walking around and around. I didn’t know what to do.’ Unasked questions hang in the air.
One, simpler query remains. Does he always wear his trademark cap? He has kept it on, even inside his warm house. Removing it briefly, he reveals a head of loose white curls. Suddenly, his appearance is more that of a bold seafarer than an impish, Bohemian English painter. Back on, pulled low, it shades him from the world and the world from him. ‘I think it looks better,’ he says wistfully, and chuckles.