I have been immensely saddened this evening to learn of the death, at the age of 74, of the designer, illustator and art critic Peter Campbell. You may know of him as the man who, since 1992, has created the fortnightly cover of the London Review of Books. Diana Souhami’s delightful tribute to Peter that is her Guardian obituary points out that for the first four years these covers often featured one of his monochrome photographs. But since 1996 they have been the delicate, poised colour illustrations that have been among the magazine’s most distinctive features. Peter also designed the magazine’s generous layout (and its just as generous Bloomsbury bookshop) and he contributed a regular column of thoughtful art criticism distinguished by his precise observations and unshowy intelligence. I cherish the two watercolours of his that hang on my walls, and I am happy to say that he was a friend of mine.
In the late 1980s Illuminations’ office was in Newman Passage, not far from Channel 4 in Belgravia’s Charlotte Street. Peter Campbell worked next door, kneeling at his drawing board on a special stool to protect his posture. Characteristically, it was a long time before I discovered that this was the man who in 1969 had edited and designed for BBC Publications the book of Kenneth Clark’s series Civilisation. This was the only book I had taken with me on my first trip to Italy, a book whose lay-outs were somehow engrained in my brain. By then I knew Peter as the kindest and warmest of men, and someone who was unfailingly self-effacing about his design skills and considerable achievements (he had worked on major books with Bronowski, Attenborough and Alastair Cooke). It was Clark, in the Foreword to Civilisation, who called him ‘that prince of editors’.
In the tiniest of ways, Peter connected us to what I felt to be a grand tradition of design and typography when he put together our first corporate brochure. I have copies of it still: clean, clear, classical and wonderfully pleasing to the eye. But it was his company that I particularly appreciated, just as I continued to when both he and we had moved on and I would meet him from time to time at exhibition openings or in second-hand bookshops.
The regular appearance of his LRB covers, and of his columns written from Tate, the National Gallery and beyond, somehow gave a sense of knowing him far better than I ever did. Diana Souhami describes the covers with precision and love:
He came up with a seemingly infinite array of unpredictable images: a yacht and a starfish, a tram, two knickerbocker glories, a game of dominoes, a man walking past a lighted window at night, umbrellas in the rain and a plug in a wall socket (switched to on). The immediate freshness, colour, playfulness and surprise of these covers belied their technical skill, erudition and command of detail and artistic reference.
A decade back, perhaps more, Peter organised an exhibition of his watercolours. Modest in all things, he showed the work for, as I recall, just three days at a weekend. By then my purchase of artworks, which in any case had always been only negligible, had been all but curtailed by the demands of three children. But I was tempted by – and succumbed to – two works. One had been a cover for the LRB, and without the book titles and author names was (and still is) a bright yellow ground on which rests an open book with multi-coloured pages.
The other watercolour (above, in a desperately poor photo) was more private, and had not been exposed on the shelves of WHSmith. This shows an unmade bed in what I have always taken to be – I’m not now sure on what authority – a cheap hotel room in Paris. There is a bright open window, and the elaborate ironwork of the small balcony suggests at least that my geography is correct.
Hanging on our bedroom wall, this unassuming artwork has for me an extraordinary sense of satisfaction – sexual certainly, but far from simply that – and an idea of promise and possibility – of a new day outside that window, and of all the things that one has still to see and to eat and to enjoy. Of all the people one has yet to meet and to talk with and to love. Of everything for which, at the end, one has simply to be grateful.