‘When I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’
– W.H. Auden, ‘In Praise of Limestone‘, 1948.
Jill Campbell creates bewitching and responsive paintings that articulate aspects of the North Pennines, where she lives. One can at once see an intention to distance from reality and to ground the works within a definite landscape, as exemplified by the titles of her recent paintings. These works are not entirely abstract, drawing us into contemplation of individual areas of the canvases – celebrations of the natural world and the possibilities of a painterly world simultaneously.
I interviewed Jill to discuss her recent work, along with her upcoming projects —
K.C: What inspires you?
J.C: Things – Stormy skies, big moody landscapes, strange shapes, curlews crying, shadows, colours, atmosphere, feelings, connections, reflections, poetry, beautiful paintings.
Exhibitions – The most beautiful exhibition I think I have seen was the Turner, Twombly, Monet exhibition at Tate Liverpool. Three of my favourite artists. I still think regularly about the stunning paintings I saw there which really moved me – particularly the Twombly Quattro Stagioni paintings.
Artists – Over the last year I have been particularly inspired by Peter Lanyon’s paintings, especially those he completed in the late ’50s, such as ‘Silent Coast’ and ‘Dorest Green’. I think I was influenced a lot by his work when making my degree show paintings. For my dissertation I examined perception of landscape with particular reference to the Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty. I think Lanyon is an example of an artist who very much had this philosophy in mind. He took personal experience as a starting point for his painting.
I also love the work of Barbara Rae, Joan Eardley and Sheila Fell.
K.C: When did you decide to become a painter?
J.C: I studied art at A-Level when I was 17 and have always been interested in drawing and painting throughout my life. When I moved to the North East 10 years ago I fell in love with the dramatic landscapes of Weardale and Teesdale and was inspired to take up painting again. I decided to do a part-time fine art degree course at the University of Sunderland 6 years ago – I graduated this year with a first class degree.
K.C: Do you hide things within your paintings? Are there secrets within them?
J.C: Not intentionally, but my painting is a many layered process and a lot of things get hidden. I often write in the painting, this may show up fully or partially at the end, or be completely obliterated.
K.C: Tell us a little about the post-industrial landscape.
J.C: Where I live in County Durham the area is marked everywhere with evidence of centuries of coal and lead mining activity. It was probably at its peak in the mid-eighteenth century, but goes as far back as medieval times in some places.
The traces left behind, often reclaimed by nature, can take the form of mounds and corresponding dents in the ground, cobblestone tracks, local places and road names, disused buildings and quarries. They often form very dramatic and ‘abstract’ landscapes with their strange, mysterious, organic shapes and shadows which are wonderful to draw and an abstract artist’s dream!
K.C: What is it about W.H. Auden’s work that you most admire? How did you come across him?
J.C: I often use writing in my work, especially from notes I make when sketching, which frequently appear in titles. I was so impressed by the landscape here that I was convinced that there must be some poetry written about it. I wanted to try to link the painting with poetry as another way to help me connect with the subject. I find that poets can put into a few words what you have struggled for ages to express.
When researching I found out about Auden’s connection and obtained a copy of a book by Alan Meyers and Robert Forsythe called ‘W.H. Auden Pennine Poet’ which was full of interesting references. I was moved by Auden’s powerful writing and strong sense of lost beliefs conveyed by the landscape. This seemed to me to fit what I was looking at. I often feel a sadness about that part of Weardale and I thought his references really connected with what I was feeling at the time – strong writing, not sentimental, which definitely connected ideas and place. I have used his phrases in a lot of my paintings about Weardale.
“New Year Letter” (1940) is the main source:
‘I see nature of my kind
As a locality I love,
Those limestone moors that stretch from Brough
To Hexham and the Roman Wall
There is my symbol of us all.’
K.C: Describe your degree show. Did you enjoy your studies?
J.C: Yes I enjoyed my time there very much. I have loved the challenge of a degree course and found the opportunity to both meet a wide range of other artists and study the subject in depth very stimulating and beneficial. It has expanded my confidence, skills and knowledge in ways I don’t think I could have achieved otherwise.
In the final year I made some paintings on canvas trying to work as big and as abstract as I wanted to go – all exploring the landscape near my home through sketching and then developing the work in the studio. It was a time to really push myself and not be held back by what landscape is ‘supposed’ to look like. My dissertation was about perception and I looked into the philosophy of Phenomenology and the work of Cezanne. This research really freed up my painting and I feel as a result I have gained more confidence with colour and composition.
The degree show was a really inspirational time. I loved planning it, curating and setting it up. I received a tremendous positive response to it, both at the show and through messages afterwards, and the work has been selected to go into the Coroner’s Office Fine Art Collection in Sunderland.
K.C: I notice that your recent work is increasingly colourful. Is there a reason for this?
J.C: I do think that colour is important and very much enjoy experimenting, particularly when painting outdoors where everything is very spontaneous and in the moment, where I don’t want to edit what I do. I always keep the question in my mind about how much colour should be about keeping it real and how much just for the fun of it, finding exciting combinations. In the end it usually comes down to what kind of atmosphere I am trying to express at the time (and happy accident!). The 2013 paintings I felt had a serious edge to them, dealing with a harsh, gritty, cold place. So I decided to keep the colour quite subtle and low key.
I am currently working on a project about the landscape nearer my home which I can visit everyday. This opportunity to closely observe and paint the daily colour changes will lead to some very colourful work in the next few months. It is a place that is superficially quite drab but I have been thrilled by the colour it has revealed over the last few months and I want to show the real beauty of the place.
K.C: Tell us about the Great North Show – what work can we expect to see by you?
J.C: This competition has run for several years at Ripon Cathedral and I have had work selected to be in the show for the last 3 years. I enjoy participating in this competition as it is a stunning venue. This year I am showing ‘Nature of my Kind’, ‘Softly Side’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Discover’, ‘Hide’ and ‘Return’, which were all created this year. The show runs from 30th August to 21st September.
Further information about Jill’s work ::
Most of my paintings are based on the Weardale and Teesdale landscape near my home, particularly along the old road from Egglestone to Stanhope, called Softly Side. I love the views along there, formed by the relationship of the high land, big skies and strange shapes created through its industrial past. The landscape there has a natural psychological ‘pull’ for me and this is not a rational thing but emotional. It is a place for reflection. I am trying in my painting to unite emotions generated by a place that is important to me with the physical characteristics of that place. I think as part of this process titles are very important. They are part of the overall story of a painting linking ideas and emotions with the visual.
I always make notes in my sketchbooks and these can be literal descriptions of what I see but also anything that comes into my head (it is important not to edit at this stage) to connect me to the experience. The words link me to that day, the place and my feelings. Titles such as ‘Troublesome Times’ are an example of that. So these notes are a frequent source for titles which can take form at any stage. ‘Silvery Moment Rocks’ derived simply from seeing a marvelous shaft of light between rocky quarry edges – that was what I noted in the immediate moment. ‘Till We Saw Snow’ was about a fabulous day in November simply driving as far as we could till we saw the snow line over near Alston. ‘November returning’ 1, 2, 3 are a series of studies about returning to a place a year later. On that day it was so bright and sunny with a beautiful blue sky and strange shaped small well defined white clouds and I knew I wanted to play around with those colours and shapes when I got back to the studio.
When I started sketching in that area and was researching its history I discovered that W.H. Auden wrote about it in his poem ‘New Year Letter’ (1940). He seems to me to have responded in an emotional way to the dramatic atmosphere and obvious history of the place, using the land as a metaphor for the human condition: asking questions of it that cannot be answered. I found his references to this landscape very powerful and because of this I have often used his phrases relating to this landscape in my titles of paintings about this area, such as ‘Earth Turns’ and ‘Northern Ridges’.
For further information about Jill and her work, see the artist’s website.
Jill Campbell, ‘Return’. 2014. Acrylic on paper, 80 x 60 cm.**
Jill Campbell, ‘Till We Saw Snow’. 2014. Acrylic on paper, 80 x 90 cm.
Jill Campbell, ‘Existence Point’. 2013. Acrylic and oil pastels, 77 x 94 cm.
Jill Campbell, ‘Nature of My Kind’. 2014. Acrylic and oil pastel on paper, 80 x 100 cm.**
Jill Campbell, ‘This Land, Cut Off’. 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 65 x 54 cm.
Jill Campbell, ‘Troublesome Time’. 2013. Acrylic and oil pastel on paper, 61 x 77 cm.
Jill Campbell, ‘Discover’. 2014. Acrylic on paper, 70 x 53 cm.**
**These paintings will be exhibited at The Great North Art Show,
Ripon Cathedral 30 August – 21 September 2014.
Katherine April Caddy, 9th August 2014.