Sarah Capes spoke with artist Rebecca Campbell about her work.
Many moons ago, when I was an intern at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the exhibition Ragamala Paintings from India opened. Since then, I have been fascinated not only by Indian art, but by the way in which it has inspired British artists and collectors since the 18th century. I even had plans to write a PhD on the subject, though that has taken something of a backseat in recent years.
I was therefore very excited to meet Rebecca Campbell last week, a British artist whose style and subject matter is heavily influenced by her travels to India. Perusing the works on her website, I was immediately reminded of the Ragamalas. Her paintings possess a charmingly naive quality, focussing largely on animals, birds and plants in landscape settings. And yet, whilst there is this sense of naivety in their format and flatness, the detail in each specific element of her paintings is exquisite. A peacock’s feathers, the leaves on a blossoming tree, or an elegantly placed butterfly; her works are characterised by an immensely pleasing harmony where everything seems to have its perfect place.
Listening to Rebecca speak about India, it was clear how much of an impact the place has had on her. Having grown up in Ireland, where she was encouraged by her governess to explore the rural surroundings, make sketches and keep a diary of the things she saw, Rebecca’s interest in the natural world started at a young age. She studied History of Art at A-level and recalls particularly enjoying early Italian Renaissance and 17th century Dutch art. All of these early interests are certainly evident in her work. Though perhaps seemingly contradictory, the precision and sharpness of 17th Dutch painting is as present in Rebecca’s work as the primitive simplicity of religious depictions from early 15th century Italy. But it is the addition of her vivid colouring, the exotic landscapes and playful imagery taken from her time in India that makes Rebecca’s works so unique and captivating.
Rebecca first travelled to India via Nepal, through to Varanasi and Calcutta, and then explored the south before travelling to New Delhi and Rajasthan. This was in her early twenties, after graduating from City and Guilds with First Class Honours in Illustrative Arts. Rebecca had felt that art school, though enjoyable, had given no indication of just how tough being an artist in London would initially be. She confessed to struggling to define her style at the beginning of her career, which meant that it was difficult for her to gain commissions at first. But she always felt inclined to a more painterly rather than illustrative approach.
It was that first visit to India that truly defined Rebecca’s style. The people, the landscape, the architecture, and the array of colours – it is Rebecca’s memories of these things that fill her canvases. She begins by making endless sketches of an idea or a memory until she is ready to turn it into a full-scale painting. I think it is this painting from memory that gives her works an almost surreal quality; they amalgamate various real elements that the artist has experienced and seen, but not necessarily always collectively representing a true scene. Rather, an assortment of animals, birds, buildings and decorations united in a flat, frieze-like vision. Miniature painters in Mughal India would often also do this, particularly in landscapes and architectural paintings, combining real and imaginary elements to make one ideal vision.
One of my favourite examples of this in Rebecca’s work is the Charm of Goldfinches. The main focus of the painting is a tree, curiously separated from the rest of the foliage within a fictional garden and enclosed by a decorative wall. There is so much space in the foreground, but somehow it does not feel empty. Looking closer, we can see three goldfinches sitting in the tree, with another flying towards them from the right. The best part of all is the little snail slithering across the foreground; though just one tiny detail, the painting somehow would not be the same without him. As I say, everything has its perfect place. The overall sense is one of a satisfying harmony within an idyllic, dreamlike garden. Another favourite of mine that also achieves this pleasing symmetry is Life at Lodi. The exotic animals, birds and plants are all perfectly situated before a Hindu temple in a surreal, Indian capriccio.
Even when Rebecca’s paintings are not directly referencing India in their subject matter, their format often does. This is the case with the Charm of Goldfinches – nothing in the work really specifies a location, but the vibrant colours, the two-dimensional background and the curious addition of the snail in the foreground all recall the somewhat quirky visions of the Moghul painters. The perspective in works such as The Early Bird Catches the Worm is particularly reminiscent of Moghul Miniature paintings and Ragamalas; the curvilinear pathway surrounding the tree that has been pushed to the foreground, for instance, and the disproportionate sizing of the flowers in comparison to the tree, recall the compositional techniques in this type of Indian painting.
The impact of that first visit to India for Rebecca cannot be understated and I was fascinated and heartened to hear and see how those influences continue to seep into so much of her work. In no way are her works attempting to recreate or emulate the art of the country, but they capture and offer us a taste of its essence. Their fundamental purpose seems to be to showcase beauty and simplicity in the everyday – to, as Rebecca told me herself, ‘celebrate life and colour and nature’.
After her first trip to India, Rebecca had started to paint furniture and murals and was hand-painting items such as trays and waste paper bins for Saks Fifth Avenue. While this was a success, she recalls it being very time-consuming as she was often reluctant to employ help, preferring to work on her own. Rebecca also felt that although these designs were a useful way of showcasing her work and putting her name out there, she had a strong desire to make the painting itself the main focus of her work, not just as a decorative element. Since 2002, Rebecca has been exhibiting at Jonathan Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. It was Cooper who encouraged her to start focusing exclusively on painting in oils; an idea which she welcomed, continuing to work mostly in this medium since then. Rebecca does, however, accept commissions to work on large-scale murals and wall decorations for private clients. Examples of these can be seen on her website and Instagram page, and I highly recommend having a look. The sheer scale and attention to detail in these works is staggering; I was astonished when she told me she had completed one project like this in just three weeks.
Rebecca’s most recent trip to India took her to New Delhi, after a couple asked her to make a portrait of their house and gardens there. She has also had similar commissions in France and the UK, producing stunning aerial views of various properties. These images in particular recall 17th century Dutch and English aerial paintings View of Llanerch Park, for instance. Rebecca’s works, however, incorporate the vibrant colouring and compositional devices of the Mughal painters, resulting in much more than a straightforward architectural likeness, but a lively, characterful portrait.
Travel remains a hugely important part of Rebecca’s life and artistic practice. Based in South London, Rebecca maintains ties with India, particularly through her work for the charity Elephant Family. In 2009, she was commissioned by the charity to paint a life-size model of a baby elephant for Elephant Parade, which was among over 200 others placed around London to raise awareness for the charity. The Wildlife Protection Society of India also commissioned another from her, situated in Green Park. They were subsequently sold at auction to raise money for the charities. She also participated in the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt in London, which raised a huge amount of money for Elephant Family. Rebecca painted a beautiful giant egg decorated with flowers and birds, which was situated in St James’s Park.
I have always been of the opinion that when it comes to collecting art, you should buy what are drawn to and what you want to live with, not what you think you ought to buy. That is probably why I have a stack of prints piling up at home, all waiting patiently to be framed. For me, the enthrallment of Rebecca’s work – that instinctive need to own and be surrounded by such beauty – was a very strong pull indeed. I started imagining every wall at home transformed into a pastoral haven or an exotic garden. Rebecca admitted to living and working in her own little bubble, opposing the lack of beauty in so much of today’s art. She said her work makes people smile, which makes her feel lucky to be doing what she is doing.
For me, her work is comforting and familiar, in a way that I find difficult to explain. Her work itself is happy, perhaps that is why. It was a pleasure to enter into the little bubble for a while, and to witness the visual manifestations of a mind so full of colourful memories. Rebecca kindly gave me some greeting cards of some of her paintings after our meeting, which, rather selfishly, I shan’t be giving away, but which have made their way to the top of my ‘to frame’ pile.
Rebecca’s next solo exhibition will be at Jonathan Cooper Gallery in September 2018.
Sarah Capes graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2011, where she completed her MA in the History of Art. She went on to The Courtauld to pursue a Masters in Curating that same year. Since then, she has worked in the London art world in various capacities, from museums and auction houses to conservation. For the last three years she has been working for a renowned Mayfair art dealer. Sarah was born in Vienna, grew up in New Zealand, the Caribbean, and the U.K. and now lives in Fulham.