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About Peter Campbell’s writings

Peter Campbell died yesterday at his home, after being diagnosed last year with cancer. He was a special man, both in his nature and in the combination of his talents. We were very glad to publish his writings, and to add him to the list of Hyphen authors, who seem often to be people whom the world finds it hard to pin down. We expect fuller accounts of him will be published, but meanwhile we can give here the ‘afterword’ to ‘At …’, a collection of his reviews from the ‘London Review of Books’. (This also allows us to correct the description of the context of the start of the ‘London Review of Books’, which was badly muddled in the book’s text.)

The first of these ‘At …’ columns appeared in the London Review of Books in October 2000 (‘At Dulwich Picture Gallery’). Since then they have been published in most issues of the paper, enabling us to let the present selection fill nearly 400 pages without difficulty. We thought it shouldn’t go to more than that.

Peter Campbell is a New Zealander. After reading philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington he became an apprentice compositor, working with the poet and typographer Dennis Glover, who had founded the Caxton Press in Christchurch but was by then working for the Wingfield Press in Wellington. He went on to work as a typographer on schools publications for the New Zealand Department of Education. In 1960 he came to London.

This background may explain some of what distinguishes Campbell as a writer. His subjects are more various than those of most art reviewers. His eye is different too. In the drawings and paintings that he makes for the LRB one finds a view that is side-long to the world; it notices the incidental, and its angle of vision is often unexpected. He is interested in how things are made, how they work. His sense of colour is special too (New Left Review pays him a retainer just to choose the colours of each cover). The drawings and the reviews are also evidently reports from someone who grew up elsewhere: a place remote from London, Oxford, Cambridge, and the circuits of British culture, but also one that took much of its bearing from the UK. This eye knows the subject matter in all details, and is yet fresh, apart, and without the sense of mission that battling British critics often have.

Looking over the history of the London Review of Books, it begins to seem quite natural that Peter Campbell should have become its main reviewer of exhibitions. The LRB was started in 1979, to fill the gap that was left during the months in which the Times Literary Supplement had ceased publication: its owners, The Thomson Group, were in dispute with the printing trade unions. (Eventually, in 1981, the Times papers were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.) The LRB existed first as a supplement within the New York Review of Books.

In 1979 the LRB was produced by four people: editor Karl Miller, deputy editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, assistant editor Susannah Clapp, and designer Peter Campbell. All four had worked on The Listener, during Miller’s editorship there (1967–73). Or rather, Campbell had contributed occasional art reviews to that paper. He was working then at BBC Publications: the BBC had begun a publishing division to make books that accompanied or which were spun off from its programmes (among the best known would be Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, Jacob Bronowski’s The ascent of man).

In its first period the London Review was – and looked like – a supplement within the NYRB. Although independent editorially, the size and design of the pages reflected the presence of the ‘mother paper’ with which it was distributed. In May 1980 the LRB began to be published separately. This new state was immediately signalled in its covers. These used an image, usually a photograph, covering the whole page below the masthead, with main articles and contributors strategically signalled in words. These often striking photos were the inspiration of Karl Miller: he had used the device very successfully on The Listener, and cited the popular music press as inspiration.

In the first volumes of the LRB Peter Campbell is a fleeting presence. He is there constantly but unseen, as the self-effacing designer of the robust, long-lived template for pages. He is there sometimes as a writer of captions to pictures, and of reviews of art books. His third role, as draughtsman and artist, became manifest in 1993, after Mary-Kay Wilmers had become sole editor of the paper. Although he had drawn and painted from childhood, and had illustrated for publication from quite early on, the beginnings of the now celebrated Campbell LRB covers were tentative: type ornaments, then a collage, finally in 1994 a full drawing. From then on they became a prominent feature. As Perry Anderson, a contributor, has remarked: ‘the covers say more of this periodical than any other in the world’.

Campbell’s ‘At …’ columns arose in the same way as his drawings. As its designer, he was often in the paper’s office anyway, and the invitation to contribute these reviews arose naturally. In this way also the pieces are incidental rather than concerted: they have happened, seemingly without gestation pains. Putting this selection together brings them into focus, giving them unintended cohesion. We suppose that the loss of innocence involved is worth it.

Robin Kinross