The pattern making Steven employed in this painting was to become the style of his expression for the next couple of years. I have included an extract from October’s 2020 calendar entry, as I touched upon the background to the painting then.
‘Steven had travelled north to Elgin by train and spent the day sketching portraits with John, both men admitting some trepidation to the meeting and the task in hand. On his return Steven felt that a straight forward portrait just did not fit with the character of the man and wanted to go deeper to the roots that John was proud of, hence the left field idea of portraying him only through pattern, ‘Paisleycus Byrnicus Virus invading Mr Gray’.
As an aside, to set the record straight, the Mr Gray of the title was not a reference to Alasdair Gray or Lanark’s skin condition of ‘dragon hide’, but rather alludes to the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. He became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities that working with pattern offered him and it became a rich vein in his work’
The painting is loosely based on ‘Las Meninas’ painted in 1656 by Diego Velazquez.
As both artist and supremo of the composition Steven dominates the centre of the canvas, with the figure of John standing to his left, with the dwarf front right from the Velazquez painting, while top right references the figure in the doorway from Las Meninas. The little dog front bottom is a direct reference to Pablo Picasso’s 1957 in depth study of the painting, so it is a Picasso dog rather than a Velazquez one.
Dazzling in form, colour and composition this painting is a triumph of imagination and skill.
The show was made up entirely of collages dating from 1988-1991.
These works were produced in a manner that made the process as labour intensive as possible. They were a distraction for a troubled mind and in the way the returning soldiers of WW1 would make elaborate matchstick models, so it was for Steven a drawn out laborious practice, where the only thoughts were formulated around the applying of the materials.
This was one of the first pieces he created using cut paper, string and sticky backed vinyl. Where the paintings were produced rapidly sometimes in as short a time scale as 5 days these works, especially the complex string pieces took weeks or even months.
To give you an idea of how he would make the process a fundamental part of the whole, the string, which most artists would apply and then paint over was in fact all cut to metre lengths, hand painted in the colours he planned to use the following day, and dried over the Aga in our kitchen. He set up special drying poles (like a clothes pulley) which allowed the string to dry slowly before being cut to size.
This collage was one of the first and like his paintings captures only that moment. There is no before, there is no after only the Now and the imagination of the viewer.
Frottage – ‘the technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art’ and Void ‘a completely empty space’, whereby the Title and the Piece become an endless conundrum.
As an interesting aside. There had been a negative comment in a newspaper or journal (I have to admit to failure of memory here) to do with the title, where the writer was complaining having mixed the art definition of Frottage with the word Frotteurism – the sexual urge relating to the touching or rubbing of genitals against the body of another. I do recall Stuart Morgan (Pre-eminent art critic and writer) who we had got to know when he stayed with us when working on his piece for the Fruitmarket Gallery/Riverside exhibition, offering to go into ‘bat for him’ if there was any more discussion or complaints about the title.
More info, essays and interviews can be found in the catalogue to the Tramway exhibition:
From the series Babette Nozière. Acrylic on paper.
While still at GSA and working in the Mixed Media department led by Roger Hoare Steven created several performance pieces, the most famous being based on the life of the famous French poisoner/murderess and darling of the Surrealist
Movement Violette Nozière, its title: Poised Murder.
The piece itself had a stage set consisting of a black and white chequered floor and several portraits of Violette herself. There were three couples plus a detective in the cast and the movement was performed to a soundtrack provided by Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives ‘The Bar’.
The couples enacted highly styled murders either strangulation, stabbing etc rearranging positions and freezing as the lights flickered on and off while the 40’s style detective (after Phillip Marlowe) complete with trench coat, Homburg hat and magnifying glass circled a running track on his hands and knees looking for clues.
For those interested in Violette’s story I recommend reading: Violette Nozière – A Story of Murder in 1930’s Paris by Sarah Maza.
It was to be a quarter of a century later that Steven decided to revisit and update this creation.
The intervening years had seen such a wealth of research: reading, visual, travel, film, music, the list is endless but the most influential at the point of this creation were the hospital of St Paul de Mausole in St Rémy (where Van Gogh had lived and worked) / Brut Art / the French literary character Fantômas by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain and the films of Roman Polanski.
Already you get a glimpse into his creative process and a mind that was constantly humming with endless ideas and random connections that all make sense through the ‘Campbell Filter’.
This painting formed part of a series called ‘Babette Nozière’, a sister to the aforementioned Violette. Babette was a complete invention, Violette having been an only child. To the left of the painting is Violette herself caught in the process of unmasking the Fantômas character by pulling aside the nightgown made famous in Polanskis film Repulsion, in an attempt to save her sister Babette shown a la Catherine Deneuve, complete with blond wig just behind Fantômas.
The graffiti on the right was inspired by his interest in outsider art and art of the insane as seen on several visits to the hospital, which still operates at St Paul de Mausole in St Remy and the museum of Dr Guislain in Ghent.
Edi Stark talks to the artist about being labelled along with ‘the new Glasgow Boys’ and his reputation as ‘Scotland’s greatest living artist’. In a most candid interview he discusses his art and personal struggles.
Original release date: 05 November 2006
Duration: 28 minutes
The podcast will be aired on the 10th December at 12 noon. To listen: Go to BBC sounds and search for Stark Talk and the radio programme will air on the 13th December at 7am
The painting was inspired by a trip to Cezanne’s studio in Les Lauves hills above Aix en Provence, it was a ritual visit that we would make on route to holidaying in Italy.
Cézanne was Steven’s favourite painter and he never tired of visiting the studio. At this time, he was also researching the fictional figure of Fantomas, the creation of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain and would complete a body of work based around this master of disguise and intrigue. So the painting has links to both, with the main figure being a mix of Cézanne/Steven and Fantomas with the scene being set inside the studio with many of the artefacts that are displayed there included in the image. I think it is the background story that I’m about to tell that holds the greatest interest for Campbell enthusiasts.
When we visited in the summer of 2006 Steven was already struggling with severe stomach pains which he put down to extreme indigestion, never recognising the pain as originating from his appendix. He simply carried on with life as normal and would carry a bottle of Gaviscon with him wherever he went, taking a swig directly from the bottle whenever the pain hit.
In common with many museum spaces there is a strict no photographs policy within the studio but Steven was desperate to have a picture of himself within the space and as all tours are guided there is little opportunity for this infringement of the rules.
He knew a posed photo was out of the question but by this time he identified himself with the gaviscon bottle that was always on his person, so he would move around the room and while the guide was delivering her lecture he would quietly place the bottle on a table, or beside a deckchair, or on a window ledge and quickly snap an image which for him was tantamount to a portrait with the master.
So on looking at the painting we can identify Steven’s presence and recognise it for what it was intended to be . . . an acknowledgment from one artist to another down through the years.
We are delighted to share an amazing story on the Steven Campbell Trust website, from the highly respected Mr Anthony Jones (Tony), former Glasgow School of Art Director, 1980-1986.
This has come to us from our good friend and previous Steven Campbell Trust New York Residency recipient, Claire Paterson, who contacted us at the beginning of this year sharing this wonderful anecdote about Steven and the Bram Stoker Medal, (originally this story was sent by Tony to Claire’s friend (and Tony’s) Elizabeth Kay).
We’ve chosen today, 8th November, to share this marvellous post as it also marks the anniversary of Bram Stoker’s birth.
As many of you who follow Steven’s work will know, the work of Bram Stoker, particularly the character Van Helsing, was explored within his paintings, in works such as, ‘In The Mist Van Helsing Gesturing as Hume’ (2) and ‘Flapping Like An Aspin’ (3). These are discussed amongst other works in The Paintings of Steven Campbell – The Story So Far by Duncan Macmillan (4).
We are delighted that the inspiration for these works can be traced back to the Bram Stoker medal, awarded in the early stages of Steven’s artistic career. We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Tony for allowing us to publish his delightful story on our website and hope that you will enjoy this as much as we have!
Note (from correspondence with TJ: “There is yet another tangential string to all this: the story of the Glasgow artist “who painted Dracula’s mother” … for another time (and, believe me, it’s quite a tale )“. With Tony’s approval we will follow up with this post very soon.
Steven Campbell Trust
Steven Campbell and Dracula
While I was Director of the Glasgow School of Art, in my office was a cupboard, filled with a grid of cubby-holes, in which letters could be filed. Somehow, over the years, it had been filled with trinkets, inkwells, little boxes of nibs, and the usual generic ‘stuff’. One day I cleared it out, hoping to find some long-lost treasure. Which I did. I found gold! In a small black velvet pouch with silk draw-strings was what seemed to be a large and dirty coin, over 2 inches across, with engraving and letters. The dull gleam of the surface hinted at precious metal … and a quick cleaning revealed that gold it was – but better than that was what the letters said:
“This medal is presented for The Most Imaginative Work of the Year, by Bram Stoker, 1900”. What? That Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula’? ( well, how many Bram Stokers could there be? ) – but why and how ? It took time and effort to piece the story together.
The revelatory tipping point was my interviewing Mary Newbery Sturrock, the daughter of the legendary Director of the Glasgow School of Art in the late 19thC, Francis ‘Fra’ Newbery, the man who commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design a new building for the Art School. Mary was well into her nineties when I talked to her, but had a perfect and accurate recall of those days and people – she’d known Margaret and Charles Rennie Mackintosh from her childhood to their deaths. It was Mary who carried a white silk cushion up the front steps of the School of Art in 1897, on which reposed the key to the School’s front door, on the day of its Opening Ceremony. She met everyone who came to the Art School to visit her father, or came to meet the Mackintoshes, and go the Tearooms – Josef Hoffman from Vienna, Hermann Muthesius from Berlin etc etc. And as a bright and inquisitive child she remembered them all, in vivid detail. During our chat I told her that I had found a gold medal – the ‘Bram Stoker Medal’ – and she almost dropped her tea-cup. “I have until this moment forgotten him, and his wife, what an incredible thing that you found this … but now I remember it all – let me tell you how the School of Art has this medal”.
Mary recalled going to the theatre in Glasgow with her father and her redoubtable mother, Jessie Newbery ( who was a fine textile designer in he own right ) in 1896. The play was ‘The Bells’, a Victorian melodrama starring the greatest actor of his generation, Sir Henry Irving. The Newberys were seated, awaiting the start of the play when ( said Mary ) “a huge hand came from the row of people behind us, and landed on Daddy’s shoulder, and a deep Irish voice said “Good evening, Mr. Newbery” – which gave Father a jolt !”. Newbery turned around, then stood up, and warmly greeted the man – who he called ‘my dear Bram’, and his wife, and who he then introduced to Jessie and wee Mary. Newbery, it transpired, had known this ‘Bram’ ( whose name was actually Abraham Stoker ) from his London years. When the play was over the Newberys sought out the Stokers, and also the Mackintoshes, and invited them all to come back to the nearby Glasgow School of Art for a nightcap in the new building, in the Director’s Office. So in that room that evening were Newbery and his wife, both great cultural leaders of the city, the genius designers Margaret and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Bram Stoker and his vivacious wife Florence Balcombe. Florence, by the way, was famous for the relationship she had before she met Bram Stoker – she was engaged to Oscar Wilde …
Stoker himself was tall and broad, an Irish boxing champion, who was the agent of Sir Henry Irving – he arranged all the acting engagements, and generally managed the life of the most successful actor of the day, and his London theatre and stage company. What could they have talked about, those extraordinary people, in that dramatic and avant-garde Director’s Office?
Well, Mary didn’t know all of it, but she did know one part of the conversation – Bram told Newbery that when he had any spare time he was writing a fantastical and lurid novel about ‘vampires’, set in the Carpathian mountains, to be called “The Un-dead”. Bram was struggling to have the extended time to settle down and write it. Newbery told him that he and Jessie had a cottage on the east coast of Scotland where they went to breathe the sea air, walk the shore, and paint – a place called Cruden Bay. An ancient landscape, filled with spooky ruins like Slains Castle … The Newberys said the cottage was available as they were about to depart for a painting expedition to the Transylvanian alps of Romania – would the Stokers like to use it as a place of calm, to sit and write … ? They would; they did. Stoker finished the novel, but changed the title to the name of the creature who ruled the story – “Dracula”. It was published a year later and became a huge literary sensation, making Stoker a wealthy man – and his subsequent frightening novels ( “The Lair of the White Worm” etc. ) added more riches. And so, for three years, Stoker repaid Newbery for his kindness in loaning the Cruden Bay cottage ( which became the local pub ), by endowing three “Bram Stoker Medals” at the Glasgow School of Art. It seems lost in time who received two of the medals, but the one I found was awarded to a David Broadfoot Carter (5) – who seems never to have collected it, which is why it had lain buried in its little velvet pouch in my office for over 80 years.
The idea that the most ‘imaginative writer’ of his times should have awarded a medal to the ‘most imaginative’ visual art student at the GSA was fascinating. So I decided to revive it , and in 1982 I went through the whole of the graduation exhibition, and the ‘most imaginative’ artist whose work stood out was, of course, Steven Campbell. So I commissioned a calligrapher to create an elegantly-handwritten parchment, with a reproduction of the medal ( our budget did not stretch to actual gold ), that told a shortened version of the Stoker Medal story, and awarded it to Steven. He came along one afternoon and I told him the whole story in detail, based on what Mary Newbery had told me, and what I had subsequently found out, and Steven was clearly bemused (and amused ). Years later he told me that he’d immediately read “Dracula”, and that in due course, in several paintings, a ‘tragic hiker’ appears ( paraphrasing Stoker’s poor lost soul Jonathan Harker, a victim of Dracula ), as does the fearless vampire-slayer Van Helsing.
Mysterious, how these unlikely connections and reverberations echo down the decades !
Professor Tony Jones CBE
Director, Glasgow School of Art 1980-86
1. Photo of Mr Tony Jones, Director, Glasgow School of Art
Accession number: PGP 723.7
Gallery: Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Print Room)
4. The Paintings of Steven Campbell – The Story So Far
ISBN 1 85158 546 X
Van Helsing first appeared soon after this Hunt’s Fall sequence. Hope, for instance, painted in 1983, showed Van Helsing, lying in a crypt, the crypt of Dracula’s castle perhaps, with a beautifully painted stained glass window above him. Flapping Like an Aspin (Pl.10) also shows him in a gothic crypt with stained glass behind him. As an investigator, he was a more positive figure than Hunt though he sometimes doubles up as Hunt’s successor, the Lost Hiker as in The Poisoning and Subsequent Paralysis of Abraham van Helsing. He was engaged in the the pursuit of the bizarre, seeking to pin it down with a stake through its heart, like the artist pursuing the elusive and mysterious goals of his painting. Indeed there is something of Van Helsing’s quest in the programme Campbell had set himself, confronting the ‘undead’, the meretricious cliches of the history of painting that rise up to haunt an unwary painter, to seduce him, to sap his strength and eventually to hold him in thrall.
Certainly, when he appears in these pictures, the Van Helsing character has something of Campbell’s own appearance. A goatee beard is his distinguishing feature and Campbell still wears such a beard. When Glasgow School of Art presented him with the Bram Stoker Prize, called after Van Helsing’s inventor, it is not entirely clear that it was not created to suit its recipient.
5. Note: D Broadfoot Carter, mentioned in Tony’s story has since been identified! See here:
This painting remains untitled as Steven had tragically died before getting the chance to decide on a title, so I have never attempted to attribute any.
This painting developed from two distinct ideas that Steven had been working on during this period. The first was the use of Paisley pattern, which had developed as a force in his work following a commission from the Paisley Museum and Art Gallery to have him and John Byrne complete portraits of each other.
Steven had travelled north to Elgin by train and spent the day sketching portraits with John, both men admitting some trepidation to the meeting and the task in hand. On his return Steven felt that a straight forward portrait just did not fit with the character of the man and wanted to go deeper to the roots that John was proud of, hence the left field idea of portraying him only through pattern, ‘Paislicus Byrnicus Virus invading Mr Gray’.
As an aside, to set the record straight, the Mr Gray of the title was not a reference to Alasdair Gray or Lanark’s skin condition of ‘dragon hide’, but rather alludes to the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. He became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities that working with pattern offered him and it became a rich vein in his work.
The image here shows it being used as a camouflage to the real meaning of the central self portrait. Again as an aside, Steven would frequently use his own face in paintings not deliberately to convey a self portrait but just as a familiarity with the bones of the face which he would frequently pass his hand over when painting.
Now the second strand I mentioned initially was an article Steven had read of a secret book kept by Hitler. His Black Book, compiled in 1940 was a list of some 2820 individuals who were to be arrested by the SS upon the invasion and occupation of Great Britain. One such individual was Lytton Strachey, an erstwhile protagonist in Steven’s earlier work. The Black Book in fact contained several significant errors as Strachey himself had died in 1932.
The central image therefore is Steven/Strachey morphing into Hitler as some sort of quasi detective surrounded by his Paisley pattern clues to hidden identity.
The numbers on the painting refer to the pattern numbers for the cloth.
The following statement is verbatim from Duncan Macmillan’s book:
Steven Campbell, The Story so Far.
When asked by the author the story behind the image Steven’s reply was:
‘It is about trying to have sex in a house full of children. It is nearly impossible. You become like them.’
It was a statement he was to repeat at the opening of his exhibition when being interviewed by George Melly for the TV news broadcast that evening. Not exactly what our parents were expecting when we told them to tune in.
This painting is one of a small group completed before Steven’s death in the August of 2007.
He always worked loosely around a theme when preparing an exhibition i.e. Pinocchio, the wars in Eastern Europe/Plight of migrants going back to his bumbling Woodhouse figures and his protagonist Hunt.
In this final series he had begun to paint around a theme of ‘Extreme Sports’ but not of the usually accepted kind such as base jumping, caving, canyoning etc. Instead his idea was to take everyday normal and safe activities but put a different and dangerous twist on them, such as in the July Calendar where we see two little girls happily potting plants in their greenhouse while a male figure on the extreme right practises his archery skills.
Given that archery would not normally be categorised as an extreme sport it is elevated to such by placing his target at the end of the greenhouse, whereby he now has to ensure the safety of the two girls while aiming at the bullseye.
We also see the Pinocchio figure being tossed high, while the trees, from which all such puppets originate, are felled also destroying the puppet habitats high in the branches.
Steven never got to conclude this series but continued to work on them even up to the day before he was hospitalised.
As ever in his life Art was his mistress and often a cruel taskmaster but he would never have had it any other way.