The year 1923 was a good one for British artists, witnessing the birth of three painters who became friends and whose work epitomises a rich strand of realism in the native tradition. Jeffery Camp was born at Oulton Broad in Suffolk, and studied at Lowestoft and Ipswich Art Schools before going to Edinburgh College of Art in 1941. Anthony Eyton was born in Teddington, Middlesex, and attended the Department of Fine Art at the University of Reading for a term, studying under Professor Anthony Betts. He served five years in the army before continuing his education at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1947–51). Patrick George was born in Manchester, studied at Edinburgh College of Art for a year (1941–2), where he met Camp, and then went into the navy. After the war he moved to London and continued his art school training at Camberwell, where he met Eyton. In 1949 he began teaching part-time at the Slade, and continued there until his retirement, as Professor of Fine Art and Director of the School, in 1988.
All three artists have evinced a profound commitment to teaching; Eyton working first at Portsmouth College of Art and Design and the University of Durham, before returning to Camberwell (from 1955) and starting at the Royal Academy Schools (from 1963). He has also enjoyed spells of teaching at Walthamstow and as far afield as St Lawrence College, Kingston, Ontario, where he was Head of Painting (1969–71). Camp moved from East Anglia to London and began to teach at Chelsea School of Art, and then the Slade, joining the staff in 1961. Camp’s belief in the importance of instruction for art students led him to write and illustrate two self-help manuals: Draw: How to Master the Art in 1981, followed by Paint in 1986. These books enshrine Camp’s approach to teaching, dwelling particularly on the discipline of copying, and became international bestsellers. In an age when art students are more often than not encouraged first to express themselves and then to market the questionable results, there is still a healthy appetite for real teaching.
It is often said that those who can’t face the insecurities of being professional painters turn to the stable career of teaching, but over the past century or so, teaching has been a legitimate part-time occupation for many dedicated artists. Not only did it provide a usefully reliable source of income, but it also kept its practitioners aware of contemporary developments in the art world. Coupled with that, artists of Camp, Eyton and George’s generation still experienced the call of public service and felt the need to give something back to society, which they could best do as practising artists by passing on the wealth of their knowledge and experience to subsequent student intakes. In those days, before part-time staff had been done away with, art teaching had yet to become an over-bureaucratised desk job and professional painters had a lot to offer in art schools.
All three have enjoyed distinguished professional careers and continue to paint today, and all have shown or are exhibiting their work this year. Patrick George had a successful solo show at Browse & Darby in Cork Street in February and March, featuring a mixture of old and new work, from 1950 to the present. He is perhaps the most reticent of the trio, a slow painter who has exhibited fewer than a dozen times since his first one-man show in 1975. But there are signs that his work is beginning to receive the attention it has long deserved: a film is being made about him, a monograph is planned, and last year he was a featured artist at the Royal Academy, at the invitation of the veteran abstractionist Tess Jaray. There is a general feeling that George has reached new heights in old age, that his precise, serene English landscapes have a greater potency than ever, and that the exquisite gentleness of his touch has even more poetry of evocation.
Jeffery Camp is soon to be celebrated in the seaside town where he once lived: in Hastings at the Jerwood Gallery will be The Way to Beachy Head (20 July to 9 October), featuring paintings from the 1970s and 80s that Camp made of the south coast and its denizens (see page 33). Meanwhile, at Art Space Gallery in Islington (27 June to 26 July) is Camp and Company, the painter showing with a select band of the artists he most admires. (These include Jock McFadyen, Neil Jeffries and Patrick George.) He comments: ‘As I’m a 90-year-old only child ready to boil over, my dealers, Oya and Michael Richardson, have labelled my selection “Camp and Company”. I suppose the company for this exhibition have little in common other than a strain of madness maybe.’ Jeffery paints with lyrical abandon, with what fellow East Anglian Michael Andrews called ‘an absence of strain…a balance of practice with spontaneity’. His sweet strong colours are allied to a habit of drawing that caresses rather than dissects a subject, and a vein of technical experiment that has him constantly pushing the bounds of realistic depiction. Not for Camp the restrictions of the rectangle: many of his paintings are diamonds balancing ‘en pointe’ like a dancer, or breaking out into unexpected shapes with correspondingly improbable rhythms and dynamics. Camp continues to surprise.
Meanwhile, Anthony Eyton is showing new work at Browse & Darby (until 7 June) under the title Near and Far. Of the three, Eyton is the most dedicated traveller, venturing to India or Australia in search of inspiration. Equally, he will paint his own back garden in Brixton with undiminished vigour, laying in the structure of trees and foliage with provisional impressionistic marks of dancing movement. All is flux and change in Eyton’s world, as he repaints a figure lining up on the banks of the Ganges to bathe, altering the composition to make it more telling, to carry more truly the fruits of long observation. His pastel and watercolour studies ripple with life, his nudes take the fall of light on living skin with heartening beauty, and even the studio still-lifes crackle with electricity.
From the authority, conviction and vitality of their work, it’s hard to believe that any of these painters is 90 this year. There are artists older than them and a very great many that are younger, but few are as consistently inventive and as determined to celebrate the glories of the world. Let us now offer them praise for the great gifts they have showered so liberally upon us. Happy Birthday, Messrs Camp, Eyton and George, and long may you continue to beguile us.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.