The poetic landscapes of Jeffery Camp: The Way to Beachy Head at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings

By Richard Moss | 08 August 2013

Exhibition review: Jeffery Camp, The Way to Beachy Head, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings until October 2 2013

a landscape painting full of swirling figures
South Downlands (1990)© the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
Jeffery Camp seems to literally inhabit these captivating landscape paintings, either in person via Hitchcock-esque cameos or in spirit via the force of his dreamlike and visionary imagination. It’s a very pleasant dream world to encounter.

Camp, who turned 90 this year, was born amid the fens and flatlands of Oulton Broad in Suffolk but evidently found his meter in East Sussex – at Beachy Head, Birling Gap, Seven Sisters and the Rock-a-Nore.

The great paintings he made between the 1970s and 1990s of these coastal landmarks have been brought together here for the first time, and they reveal an artist in thrall to a dramatic coastline and someone who combines a mastery of both landscape and figurative painting.

Having studied at Lowestoft and Ipswich Art Schools, Camp went to Edinburgh College of Art in 1941. After a spell teaching at the Chelsea School of Art, he settled on a career as a tutor at the Slade, where he taught for 25 years.

Yet despite shows at London galleries, including retrospectives at The Serpentine (1978) and the Royal Academy (1988), he has remained a "painter’s painter" – and is largely unknown to the general public.

The exhibition takes its name from The Jerwood's single Camp painting, The Way to Beachy Head, Holywell (1990), which is one of the more muted but no less fascinating paintings on show.

With its palette of subdued greens and browns and two magpies flying across the roiling sea (the optimistic Camp always seems to paint two – for joy), the eye is drawn to the flight of steps which, in Camp’s own whimsical description, “move up my painting, here and there ascending and aspiring.”

“Climb if you like it windy,” he adds.

Camp's lyrical asides are peppered gracefully across the gallery and they are an important ingredient.

Here he is on Beachy Head, Magpies at Evening (1973):  “The oceanic feelings inspired by Beachy Head, of flowing waters, flowing wind, soaring sails, pulsing hearts, flowing veins, moving gulls, whirring cine films, kicking flints, lurching jackdaws, powdering chalk, gleaming helmets, golden harness, shimmering fabrics of bright colours, the painting and the thrill, are presented to me in an aerial structure without attachment to the closed perspectives of the lowlands of my youth.” 

Fascinating stuff, and a handy primer for the things – from hang gliders and couples to the juxtaposition of the Suffolk and Sussex coastlines – that have captured his and our imaginations.

a circular painting of a couple on a cliff edge above a lighthouse
Beachy Head, Spectacular Drop (1972)© the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
Many of the works are mounted on boards which have been cut into great circles, diamonds and other asymmetrical shapes, seeming perfectly in keeping with the abstract, joyful whirls of colour and wide horizons within them.

Camp’s ability to conjure a sense of magic, danger, vertigo and beauty seems to lie at the heart of his appeal, but there is also an elaborate playfulness in his work - and evidence of an accomplished and detailed painter of flowers and foliage as well as his mystical and corporeal figures.

Then there's the recurring motif of the couple; windswept, huddling together within the wonder of it all as waves churn and crash beneath them.

It is Camp and his former wife, the painter Laetitia Yhap. They married in 1963 and lived together in Hastings, dividing their time between the pleasantly frowzy seaside town and London.

In South Downlands (1990), a large scale hymn to the mystical beauty of the Downs, we find the perfect fusion of Blake and Chagall and an absorbing combination of detail and diffusion that is weirdly rendered in purple, blue and turquoise.

Figures dance and embrace among the wild flower meadows of the cliff tops before ascending heavenwards to arc and disolve within the clouds.

Elsewhere there are dramatic chasms, night-time meditations lit with lighthouse beams, peaceful resting figures in spring pastures and vertiginous evocations of the sheer excitement of the abyss.

In addition, two rooms of paintings, chosen by critics, offer an interesting aside to these poetic visions of Sussex-by-the-sea and a taster of Camp's other interests.

Andrew Lambirth, who also contributes an essay for the catalogue, selects Rainbowed Thames (1995) with its pair of lovers soaring above the river like “Blake’s angels or Chagall’s roistering villagers.” Norman Rosenthal's choice, Fling (2006) is similarly filled with “hallucinatory figures”.

The final painting, chosen by John McEwan, is Ralph (2006), a great asymmetrical crucifix of four canvasses rigged together to form an exuberantly abstract view of England – or Albion – that scans the white cliffs and the channel.

McEwan leaves the commentary to another painter with an eye for the mystical landscape, the late John Craxton, who described his contemporary as a “rare poetic painter of delight whose radiant visions never cease to amaze and give pleasure.”

If painting is indeed about the pleasure principle, this show of beautiful poetic landscapes is the perfect exemplar.

  • Open 11am-6pm (4pm September 15). Admission £3-£8 (free 4pm-8pm first Tuesday of each month, family ticket £20). Follow the gallery on Twitter @jerwoodgallery.

More images:

a painting of a young man in shorts recling on a cliff top looking out across white cliffs
Beachy Head, Staring at the Wind, 1972© the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
a painting of a man sleeping on a cliff top
Beachy Head, Dawn, 1975-84© © the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
a painting of two nude sunbathers on a clifftop
Sunbathers at Beachy Head, 1995© the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
a paintig of two figures perhced on a cliff top looking at a seagull
Beachy Head, Gull Over Chasm, 1972© the artist, courtesy Art Space Gallery, London
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