Cressida Campbell: The Quiet Approach - Art Collector

Issue 65, July - September 2013

Cressida Campbell's refined printmaking skills have been treasured by audiences for decades. John McDonald takes a look at the esteemed career of this rather reclusive artist.

Cressida Campbell, Flannel flowers, 2012. Painted woodblock, 98.7 x 155.8cm. Courtesy: the artist and Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane.

There are artists who work hard on their careers and those who save their energy for the studio. Cressida Campbell is firmly in the latter category. She spends almost every day in her backyard atelier in a Sydney beachside suburb, working patiently at her unique, labour-intensive method of printmaking.

We tend to think of the print medium as a collaboration between an artist and a professional printmaker. There is also a sense in which prints are a secondary artform, produced and sold in larger or smaller editions. None of this applies to Campbell. She begins by drawing a design on a piece of plywood, carves the outlines with an etching tool, and completes the image by applying successive layers of watercolour. In the final stage she moistens the picture with a thin spray of water and runs off a single impression. The result is a work on paper and a wooden block, mirror images of each other.

A piece can take weeks to complete, ensuring that a vast expenditure of time produces only a small body of work. Yet this does not mean Campbell is making art only for an elite audience. When the S.H.Ervin Gallery hosted a 25-year survey called Timeless: The Art of Cressida Campbell, at the beginning of 2009, it broke all attendance records.
The previous year a book on her work published by her late husband, Peter Crayford, instantly sold out an edition of 2,000. The book, which is arguably the most beautiful monograph ever devoted to an Australian artist, has gone through two further editions and continues to be in demand.

It is clear that Campbell, now in her early fifties and working at the peak of her powers, has acquired a large and enthusiastic audience among the general public. At the same time she is often overlooked by the art museums who see her as a decorative artist rather than one of those heroic cutting-edge types preoccupied with the big issues of our era.
It is true that Campbell’s subject matter is relatively traditional. The majority of her pictures feature still life motifs, although there are also interiors, landscapes and the occasional portrait. Motifs are chosen for their visual interest with no concern as to their wider meanings. This method worked well enough for artists such as Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, and Campbell is happy to follow in their footsteps.

The strength of her work lies in its rigorous sense of composition. Like Edgar Degas, or the Ukiyo-e printmakers, who have been constant sources of inspiration, she approaches a motif from unusual angles, contrasting flat areas of colour with busy detail. She believes that the editing and cropping of an image is crucial to its success, and is happy to trim off part of a finished work to give it a more dynamic appearance.
One may see her taste for viewing the world from unconventional angles even in early (non-unique) prints such as Through the windscreen, which shows a harbour side view from the front seat of a red Volkswagen. This is one of only four works by Campbell in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

She fares better in her hometown, with nine works in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. However, the main reason she has a larger number of works in the Sydney gallery and in several regional galleries, is because of donations by Margaret Olley, a long-term friend and admirer.

There is only one work by Campbell in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery - a piece made during a residency at Griffith University in 1986; and nothing in the National Gallery of Victoria and other state galleries. She is popular with audiences, but unfashionable with the curators, partly due to her distaste for acting as a lobbyist for her own work.

If Campbell is an intensely private person it may be because her childhood was spent in the public eye. The youngest daughter of the renowned columnist, Ross Campbell, she featured as “Pip” in her father’s popular stories of family life in “Oxalis Cottage”. Her elder sister Sally was “Theodora”; her brother, Patrick was “Lancelot”, and sister number two, Sonny, became “Little Nell”, a nickname she sustained during a peripatetic career on stage and screen.

Unlike her sister, Cressida never felt the slightest desire to stand in the spotlight. Always intent on being an artist, she spent no more than three days at Sydney College of the Arts before realising she had no interest in its avant-garde agenda. She transferred her studies to the National Art School, (previously East Sydney Technical College), where she was able to cultivate the skills she needed.

By 1983 she had already settled into her idiosyncratic style of printmaking and was showing at the original Stephen Mori Gallery in Leichhardt, which was one of Sydney’s liveliest venues. She was a bestseller from day one, but as the Mori Gallery adopted a more uncompromising contemporary stance, Campbell found she no longer belonged. In 1989 she held her first exhibition with Rex Irwin, with whom she remains today, as part of the new Olsen Irwin franchise.

Campbell also exhibits with Sophie Gannon in Melbourne, with Nevill Keating Pictures in London; and since 1994 with Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, where she will be showing new work from 9 July this year.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Campbell’s art over the past three decades is its extraordinary consistency. She is the antithesis of expressionism, with its hit-or-miss approach to picture making. Every piece, large or small, is carefully considered before it is allowed to leave the studio. This means she is not the kind of artist known primarily for a handful of masterpieces. There are very large works such as From the balcony (triptych), which shows the interior of a former residence in Tamarama, but even the smallest vignettes are given the same fastidious attention.

For her new show with Philip Bacon Galleries, Campbell has completed a large picture of flannel flowers and the tangled stalks of plants against the sky. It conveys the feeling that one is lying in the grass looking up at wispy clouds in a sea of blue. There is also a series of interiors, including a fragment of carpet seen at an oblique angle under a table. It may sound nondescript but this small picture has a startling energy, feeding off the zigzag patterns in the carpet.

The show in Brisbane will be the first time Campbell has exhibited her drawings on sheets of plywood. These spare, precise graphics provide the framework for every picture, but they stand up surprisingly well as self-contained works. This exercise reveals the crucial importance of drawing for Campbell, and makes us conscious of the dominant role of colour in her prints and painted blocks.

If Campbell’s modest subjects are compelling to the eye, this is largely due to her skill with composition, but also because every still life, every interior is like a short story, or a fragment torn from a novel or a play. The universal appeal of her work may be attributed to the way she captures those countless small epiphanies that bring meaning to everyday lives.

John MacDonald

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