“I won’t be pigeon holed”

The humouristic nature of Rebecca Campbell

Article by Ceserine Abbeness

The garden of her parents. Ireland. Rebecca Campbell soaked it all up like a sponge it turns out. With some detours she became a gallery artist. Simplicity, flora, fauna and humour all come together in her work. “ I can do what I want”. A portrait.

“ I can’t remember not painting,” says Rebecca Campbell (1965). “ My mother always encouraged us, my paintings as a child were rather pale and usually quite whimsical. I used my imagination and painted landscapes, animals and sometimes mythical beasts, usually unicorns.” As a toddler she moved from Stamford in England to the countryside near Celbridge in Ireland where her parents did up a house and created an incredible garden with long herbaceous borders, a water garden in an old wood, a rockery and a big lawn, unfortunately not that level to play tennis on! Homegrown vegetables were sold to the local shop.

“ It is my first memory of a garden. My sister and I each had a piece of garden for ourselves. We built small ponds and rockeries, we planted them with lots of flowers, which had to struggle to survive, the competition was fierce! My mother is especially nature orientated, she learnt all about plants and decided what was allowed in the garden. She also painted them. As a botanical artist she won prizes from the Royal Botanical Society. I think it is in the genes, she has natural scientists in the family and my great grandmother was a very good water colourist.”

They also had animals. “My parents thought it would be a good to breed donkeys as a way of earning extra money but it was like trying to sell coals to Newcastle!” So the family were stuck with two donkeys, these would always make friends with impossible ponies that they were lent in the holidays. There were also dogs, hamsters, chickens and fantailed pigeons when a fox or hawk didn’t get the latter two. Rebecca has to admit that she never had much interest in the garden or flowers. “I took it all for granted but as a child I must have absorbed it all because I continually refer to it. Ireland is a very lush place and plants flourish. A lot of our friends were the Anglo Irish who lived in big houses that had been in their families for generations, most had walled gardens, great places to play hide and seek.”

Rebecca was nine years old when she went to stay with a family with a governess for a year. They had a big farm, garden and a lake with a grotto. “We went for walks every afternoon and kept nature diaries, often we would bring things back to draw.” When she was eleven she went to boarding school in England again in the countryside. There were beautiful grounds where she could roam freely. There was a great art teacher, she really laid the foundations how to observe and draw. Art school in London was the next step, Rebecca studied pure illustration. After her studies she travelled for a year, “I worked in Australia and then travelled throughout the Far East spending the last three months in India. I wanted to go there because my grandparents lived there during the British reign. I’d seen photographs, so exotic and yet so English with bejewelled elephants and polo! In India I saw Mogual miniatures for the first time. I immediately fell for the colours, design, use of perspective and the fact they told a story. India has an abundance of myths and legends. It’s a rich country, people are religious and superstitious. It has stunning landscapes including deserts, hills, and tea plantations full of women in brightly coloured saris, it’s breathtaking.”

Coming home to London harsh reality was waiting for Rebecca, she wanted to start as an illustrator but it was full on recession, also art school had given no preparation on running the business side of things. Apart from that she was working from home she found it difficult having no structure and working in isolation. She took on a fulltime job at a magazine, doing layouts, organizing ads and occasionally doing some illustrations.

After a holiday Rebecca decided she wanted to start painting again but as the British economy wasn’t great and there was little illustration work available she started decorating children’s furniture with success. Commissions from big store chains followed but it was unsettling. “I was too dependent on furniture makers and had less time to come up with new designs which is the bit I liked best.” When she was asked to do murals – “much more fun” a new career was born. In 2001 the gallery owner Jonathan Cooper who had seen her work in a magazine approached her. Although Rebecca only had murals in her portfolio he fell for her style. She was given 3 months to come up with ‘real’ paintings. Cooper was delighted with the result and offered her a solo exhibition – a true turning point. “I had never considered myself a gallery artist. It is incredibly nice to come up with your own exhibitions, make paintings, I don’t have to take clients wishes into consideration, and I can do what I want. When I’ve chosen a theme for an exhibition I discuss it with the gallery, usually they let me do my own thing. Funnily enough my ideas come at 4am, pen and paper are ready next to my bed. I’ll do quite a lot of sketches before I get the composition right. I will draw everything out on tracing paper and then the real painting starts”; She works in oils on primed wooden panels –“much smoother than canvas.”

Rebecca’s 2006 exhibition evolved around Proverbs and Phrases. “I’d collected many through the years, I really like Every Beetle is a Gazelle in the Eyes of its Mother, the painting I did seems straight forward but with the title it becomes humourous”. The series was created on a farm in Sussex. The woodpeckers there can be found in ‘Pecking Order’, the dog in ‘Barking up the Wrong Tree’ is the at one time abandoned Paddy and the deer in ‘Can’t See The Wood For The Trees’ ate all the roses. The Indian Mogual miniatures taught Rebecca how she could suggest space in an unconventional way. “I like to manipulate the picture plane, to look at things from a different angle or using shallow space. In the past my style was looser with bigger brush strokes. As a student I experimented more, it’s amazing how detailed my paintings have become.”

Also the naïve post impressionistic work of Henry Rousseau is a source of inspiration, “I love their simplicity (that isn’t that simple), their boldness and sense of colour. People thought that Rousseau was too decorative but now he’s seen as an important artist. I feel that he and I are on the same wave length!” Rebecca calls her work quintessentially English, gardens and animals play an important role. “It’s in the blood,” she laughs. “I have a decorative style with a good dose of humour. I pay more attention to nature now than I did 20 years ago. I make a lot of notes and because I paint from my imagination I’m always looking for subjects that reflect those ideas.”

I’ve never been a 9 to 5 person. There are continuous deadlines. If I’m being good I will go running first thing in the morning, lovely when everything is in bloom, less fun when it’s cold and windy. After that I do my administration and around 10am I start in my studio. In the building there are about 30 people, painters, jewellers, ceramicists, textile designers and sculptors. We try and have lunch together; a sculptor here has made us a lovely garden. I continue until 6 or 7 pm. There have been times when I work 7 days a week but I do try to take weekends off. Unfortunately I don’t have a garden, my studio looks out onto a park, and in front of my window is a sycamore tree. Here in London the seasons can pass unnoticed but thanks to that tree I’m aware of the daily changes. I see a lot of birds and walkers, dog owners are my favourite, and a lot of the time they really do look like their pets!” She still likes to travel, last winter travelling through China for 6 weeks - impressive. “I researched how the Chinese used to paint in the past: also using simple compositions.” The theme of coming exhibition is symbolism what is the symbolism of plants and animals in different cultures and religions. For example a tiger that makes his way through bamboo symbolizes Buddhism in the jungle of sinners. And of course Rebecca is already looking for new inspiration, “my ideas and style keep evolving, I don’t know where it will end, I won’t be pigeon holed, I’m always open for new challenges.”