Jeffrey Camp at Art Space Gallery

IAN COLLINS Some of the most youthful pictures to be seen in London this summer are by a grand old man from Lowestoft. Ian Collins cheers the life and work of Jeffery Camp.

IAN COLLINS

Three things I shall do this summer: walk from Lowestoft to Southwold; follow the Thames path on both banks between Tower and Westminster bridges; laze in the grass above Beachy Head.

In all these pleasures I'll be tracing the footsteps - and keeping in my mind's eye the scintillating paintings - of Jeffery Camp, the East Anglian-raised master artist who is now a very English Chagall or Monet.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - this year running from June 11 to August 19 - is always brightened and enlivened by six pictures from the Royal Academician who was born at Oulton Broad. Sometimes these half-dozen glimpses of paradise are among a few uplifting sights in an otherwise lowering experience.


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This year there's an added treat. In celebration of the artist's 84th birthday Art Space Gallery - run by Michael Richardson Fine Art in Islington - is staging a celebratory show which proves that, in his ninth decade, Mr Camp is not raging against the dying of the light.

Rather, he is revelling in gorgeous and glorious visions of life at its most brilliant.

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The only son of a cabinet-maker and antiques dealer, Jeffery Camp enrolled at Lowestoft School of Art when aged 15, before further studies in Ipswich and Edinburgh. Late in 1944 a travelling scholarship took him back to a Suffolk still affected by war.

“My parents had been evacuated to Eye,” he has recalled, “deep in luscious countryside, where I fell in love with trees. I painted them through the seasons as they turned from green to yellow.

“Since I was painting the landscape, I was eligible for a bursary awarded to landscape painters which required that I go to London to show my work to Sir Alfred Munnings, then president of the Royal Academy.

“'What's all this bottle green?' he said. 'Why don't you go out into the country and draw the thorn bushes?'

“Munnings showed me around the Academy, throwing open doors as if he owned the place. But I had more modern ideas and was thinking about Bonnard and Matisse, so was out of sympathy with him, though I did get the award.”

An exhibition of Mr Camp's resulting Suffolk landscapes was shown in Lowestoft in 1947 and many years later came his election as a Royal Academician (by an institution firmly turning its back on its reactionary past president).

From 1954, just before a commission to paint an altarpiece for the Norwich church of St Alban's, the artist started to work on studies of figures on or above the beach, always in motion.

“I like people in movement,” he has said. “I like the flux. Happiness is often to do with vitality. The activity of birds and sky and sea is somehow joyous, and helps towards happiness.” His early figures would also look touchingly fragile against the force of the elements.

Although Jeffery Camp was soon to leave the Suffolk coast after sunburst pictures of sea, flowers and courting couples at Corton, Pakefield and Kessingland, and with a national reputation swiftly assured through three shows at London's Beaux Arts gallery, water remained crucial to his art

Based at Hastings, and married to the artist Laetitia Yhap, he painted boats and people on the beach and then the cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head.

Teaching for decades at the Slade, he has latterly lived and worked in London - but with frequent sketching trips to his most beloved bits of coast.

Holidays might be working visits to Venice.

In late maturity, and most especially in grand old age, a warmer, more lyrical, erotic and dream-like note spread through his pictures, until he was depicting entwined couples in rainbow colours, oblivious of the sea or river flowing past their locked limbs.

“A painter's work,” he once wrote, “may change less in the middle years and explode with surprises at the end.” That now reads like a prophesy of his own progress

The birthday show is titled Rubicon - a stream the artist crossed long ago in his quest for creative freedom. But how he enjoys the ongoing journey.

Nowadays much of the South Coast has been developed into what Norfolk artist Colin Self would call Outer Bungolia, but if you drive to Eastbourne (and a car is essential here) a world of wonder still remains.

Drive up and out of the town and you enter swathes of wilderness carefully protected by a forward-looking council since the 1920s.

Here, between blessed Beachy Head and blissful Birling Gap - and on to Cuckmere Haven, where a Sussex river winds towards the sea in tight loops below us like elephant intestine laid out on a dissecting slab - is one of two artistic domains of Jeffery Camp.

The other favourite setting for this Stockwell-based painter is the river Thames. I remember being knocked sideways by a huge canvas of acrobatic lovers tumbling over Tower Bridge.

In recent years this free spirit has painted his electric images on canvases stretched into eccentric shapes. Imagine the result if a lady from a Beryl Cook painting were to sit down hard on a tambourine and you may get the picture.

Some of these smeared, scratched and scribbled scenes gleam like tiny misshapen gems. Others are multi-panelled kaleidoscopic monuments - like bright crosses mistaken for picnic blankets and squashed by the entire women's bowls team from our Beryl's most iconic picture.

Beryl Cook and Jeffery Camp share a magical sense of mischief. And the latter at least shows us that the most serious things to do with life (and death) are best said lightly.

Then again, happy is an alert old age where there's nothing left in work or play to prove or fret over. Time to take risks (shame on the doctor and health and safety dictators denying that 103-year-old woman from Southwold her desire for a parachute drop).

For Jeffery Camp senior citizenship has left a sensual joy in the application and presentation of pigment - orange, pink, emerald next to Cadmium yellow and masses of Prussian blue and ultramarine. He creates the sensation of wild abandon.

A large part of the human predicament may be that we only really appreciate something when we're near to leaving it. We value most what we are about to lose.

But I can imagine the above paragraph drawing only a wry twinkle from the excellent Mr Camp.

He simply stretches out the present moment - and the nanosecond - into an eternity, serving up a tribute to the thrill of life on a crushed tambourine.

t Jeffery Camp - Rubicon is at Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter's Street, London N1 (020 7359 7002; www.artspacegallery.co.uk) until June 2. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm. Tube: Angel. Illustrated catalogues - with tributes from artists Frank Auerbach, John Craxton, Anthony Green and John McLean and numerous art critics - cost £12 including postage.

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