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.
The image here is taken from a tragic real life event that Steven happened unwittingly to be party to and which left a scarring memory.
It was early on a sunny Sunday morning in New York when after a debate around him going to his studio, with me saying he should take a Sunday off as family time / day of rest but ending with us compromising on him going for a few hours and planning to be back by early afternoon.
Steven set off for his studio in Bed-Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant). He had one change to make on his subway journey from our loft in lower Manhattan to the Brooklyn borough.
As he got off his first train and was descending down to a lower platform there was a large crowd cramming onto the platform and all looking intently at something happening on the tracks. He could hear someone screaming and word began to filter through the crowd that there had been a ‘jumper’.
Paramedics and police were there dealing with the situation and Steven feeling he’d no wish to be party to whatever tragedy was unfolding took himself back up the stairs to then cross over the platform, so he could descend on the other side, having chosen to give up on the idea of the studio and come home instead.
Unbeknownst to him just as he was about to descend a decision had obviously been taken by the paramedics that the platform was too crowded to get through with the stretcher and they had crossed the platform to ascend on the very staircase that Steven was descending. He said it was one of the singularly most horrific sights, as the stretcher angled up came into full view, it carried a young black man screaming in agony and waiving two bloody stumps in the air where his legs (severed from the knee down) had been.
In all the tragedy he was not unaware of the irony of by dint of being the only person who apparently wanted to avoid the scene being the only one to get a grandstand view of this young mans horrific injuries and the subsequent sorrow he felt for a fellow human being brought so low that a suicide attempt had been the only way out.
This makes you look at the image in a whole different light.
Continuing with our 2020 feature of images from our Steven Campbell Calendar, Carol Campbell discusses our May selection:
Portrait of Two Cousins with the Same Mother who left them Alone when she was Seventeen. Collage on Canvas 1991.
In the couple of years leading up to this group of works some life changing events had taken place.
The following is from Duncan Macmillan’s book, The paintings of Steven Campbell The Story so Far:
‘In response to these events and in a dark mood, between 1990 and 1991 he made a series of collages. These mattered to him profoundly. It was as though he had to start from scratch again and he struggled with the brutal business of making them till his fingers bled. They took him months of painstaking labour. The Matisse technique of papier découpé, which in part they use, was designed to make picture making easy, but it is as though Campbell deliberately went out of his way to adopt a technique that makes collage difficult. These collages are made up, not just of cut-out paper, but from lengths of coloured string, cut and glued to the surface to create an effect like tapestry, embroidery, or more banally like haircord carpet and turning expression on its head.
In proportion to his wish to make something new from the language of painting, the limits of the painter’s art are something that Campbell has been more aware of than most. Here in this group of collages from 1990-91, he has consciously grappled with them directly.’
This is what Steven said about these works, in conversation with the author (Duncan Macmillan):
‘ I thought people would be attracted by the sheer craziness of building a work up starting with a piece of string. It was only the madness I was interested in. To do the task was all I believed in. I only believed in applying string every day’.
The image itself shows two seated male figures conjoined by a house and two butterflies. Steven used the butterflies often to represent a heart or love, at other times as a metamorphosis of change.
Steven’s brother Graham had died very suddenly a couple of years earlier so the figures although only acknowledged as cousins do represent the family bond symbolised in the shared house, the love of family and the change, for one, from a physical to a spiritual existence.
Our Steven Campbell Trust calendar April image, draws on what was to become a leitmotif for Steven for over a decade: Pinocchio.
Our family has for many, many years spent our summers in Italy with the majority of our time spent between Tuscany and Umbria around Cortona and Lago Trasimeno.
We first started going when our 3 children were small and it was then that we discovered a theme park on the outskirts of Perugia called Citta Della Domenica or Sunday City. I use the term theme park very loosely, as the park was set up in the 60’s and has changed little since then. It is part nature reserve, part sculpture-park but it does indeed have a theme and that theme is Pinocchio, not the Disneyland cartoon character but the much darker original story by Carlo Collodi.
Dotted around the park are various scenes from the story, some funny but others quite frightening, especially for young kids.
One in particular which struck Steven, was of Pinocchio sitting very dismally in a dark cave-like prison shackled to the wall. He did in fact make a painting of it called Pinocchio in Chains.
The Pinocchio here however is modelled on the souvenirs that crowd all the shops in the surrounding area from Lucca to Siena. They come as jointed figures, as in the painting, ranging in size from key rings to actual puppets, some even come as comically collapsible figures when you press the bottom of their stand.
Steven has chosen, on this occasion, to combine him with a female protagonist, a loosely based Heidi type figure, a pubescent girl/woman straddling both those worlds while embracing the tree that we could conjecture had been the one used to make our hero.
Steven had since the 80’s, with his Painting Ding Dong in the National Gallery of Scotland, drawn upon this female figure complete with her childlike braids, juxtaposed with her womanly strength or self knowledge.
Further Pinocchio images and information can be found in articles relating to Steven’s 1993 exhibition at the Talbot Rice Centre in Edinburgh, called Pinocchio’s Present.