Another world

 

INTERVIEW Patrick Campbell, who helped redevelop the Bewley’s group, has reinvented
himself as a sculptor. PADDY AGNEWvisits his studio and exhibition in Florence

IN HIS PAST life, Paddy Campbell would find himself sitting across a table from a union representative, in the middle of difficult negotiations that, just sometimes, might get tedious. What would he do? Some of us might just daydream, or surreptitiously try to read last night’s Champions League match report, upside down from the paper on the other side of the table.

Campbell had another solution. He would get out his sketch pad and draw the union rep in question. Not every trade unionist was happy with the finished product, but it was good for Campbell’s peace of mind, doing that which he loved best. The thing about Paddy Campbell is that he has always loved to draw and paint, and it shows in his work.

To spend a day with the 67-year-old sculptor and artist in Florence is to ask yourself an intriguing and basic question. Namely, can we redefine ourselves in the eyes of the world, heading off in another direction entirely? In his case, at least, the answer would appear to be a hugely optimistic, resounding “yes”.

To a generation of Irish, Paddy Campbell is Mr Bewley’s, the founder in the 1960s of Campbell Catering, the company that acquired Ireland’s most celebrated coffee name (and cafe) in 1986. As the Celtic Tiger roared, Campbell Catering progressed and developed, not only becoming successful but also regularly winning plaudits as one of Ireland’s “50 best companies to work for”.

Throughout that time, Campbell toiled for the company that he had founded with his wife Veronica. Yet he never let go of his passion for art. He now says that he was 95 per cent businessman and 5 per cent artist – but that 5 per cent burned bright within.

In the mid-1980s, he asked his son Duncan if he knew of any summer-painting courses that he could follow. Duncan suggested Florence, no less, a city that has been the Mecca of would-be artists ever since an ambitious dude called Lorenzo de’ Medici decided he would use the family’s huge banking wealth to patronise promising upstarts, such as Michelangelo Buonarroti.

In some senses, those summer courses marked a turning point, the beginning of an evolution that arrived at a watershed in 1996. It was while he was hiring a new chief executive for Bewley’s that he decided the time had come to reverse the percentages, and become 95 per cent artist and 5 per cent businessman.

Obviously, he was a privileged person. He could afford to delegate, to take a back seat in a business that was clearly going well. He admits, too, that as a young man who had earned himself an honours in art in his Leaving Cert, he had been tempted to try to paint for a living. Only tempted, however, because he was far too realistic. In the stone-age era of 1960s Ireland, hacking out a living as an artist was about as profitable as trying to sell winter sandals.

By the mid-1990s, however, the time had come. Keen to learn as much as possible about basic painting technique, he became an ever-more enthusiastic visitor to Florence. So much so that, having exhausted all the courses available to him, he opted to try something different and do a course in sculpture.

This was a revelation. Sculpture seemed to come naturally. He found it not only more intuitive than painting but also utterly absorbing and fulfilling. Looking at his show, Another World, currently in the Palazzo Comunale in Fiesole in the hills outside Florence, that sense of sheer delight in both the craft and his subjects is all too obvious.

You must have a lot of nerve to hold an exhibition in Florence; this is a coals-to-Newcastle situation. The Florentines have seen (and still see) their fair share of “useful” players out there on the park, from Cimabue through to Michelangelo, passing via Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and many others.

Campbell admits that such thoughts did occasionally cross his mind, giving him very serious pause for thought. Yet, such is the sheer pleasure he takes from sculpture that there seems to be little, if any, sign of angst in his work. Rather, there is a lot of energy and an obvious delight in the (often naked and equally often female) human form.

The naked ladies are there to greet you before you even get in the door to the Palazzo Comunale. Not without difficulty, Campbell got permission to show some of the 40 works outside in the piazza, right in front of the Palazzo Comunale. One naked figure, life-size and standing bold as brass with her hands behind her back in a very natural pose, was a bit too much for the local parish priest, however. The problem is that the forecourt of the Palazzo Comunale is just 30 metres from the church. The parish priest complained that, as they went about their worship, his faithful should not have to be confronted with such sights. Campbell took his point and, without fuss, moved the lady in question to the other side of the Palazzo steps.

Other life-size works outside include a rower (complete with boat), a mother and child, a midsummer night’s dream and a princess (complete with frog). Inside, in the handsome loggia, there is a series of smaller but utterly engaging sculptures. These are little tableaux vivants, tranquil scenes of “normal” living – riding a scooter, playing a fiddle, at a clothes fitting, applying make-up at a dressing table, playing a ball game, lying on the beach and reading a book.

Inside the town hall, we have arguably the most “popular” four items in this exhibition, namely four installations that feature scenes of everyday Italian life – in a cafe, a train carriage, a bathroom and around a large family table. These miniature works are rather like outsize dolls’ houses, but dolls’ houses that bear witness to a keen, often witty observation of contemporary Italian life: the guy struggling to put his case into the luggage rack on the train; the glamorous women and general air of seduction in the bar; the noise and chaos, complete with soundtrack, of what looks like a gathering of young mothers, complete with a variety of young kids.

Later, Campbell takes me back down into Florence to his studio on Via Luna, about 10 minutes walk from the Duomo. Down a little side street, he has found a converted schoolroom building that creates a beguiling atmosphere of light and calm. He makes no bones about confessing that he is very contented in his self-appointed workplace. Not only has he equipped the studio with a bewildering set of screens, scaffolds, lights and motors (with which to rotate the larger sculptures) but, as he points out cheerfully, the studio is right in the heart of the town, covering his every need.

Campbell is truly a “happy camper” in Florence. Not that he denies being isolated and lonely, on occasion. After all, his relationship with Florence was based on summer stints, rather than any full-time working gig. He is far from his Irish context, but this, he says, only serves to stimulate his sculpting.

Recalling all too well the native Irish penchant for begrudgery, I was curious to know when people began to take him seriously as an artist, rather than seeing it as a self-indulgent “hobby”. (Campbell wants to sell his work; not only does he want to cover his costs, he wants to prove that he can make a living as an artist.)

There is no simple answer to that question but he concedes that being chosen to sculpt the official portrait of President Mary McAleese two years ago was a large feather in his artistic hat. He is understandably proud, too, as someone with Tyrone origins, that the resultant work was shown at the Royal Ulster Academy’s annual exhibition in October last year.

These days, Campbell spends maybe 75 per cent of his time in Florence, living in rented accommodation. Yet this is not to say that he has turned his back completely on his former life. He may have a backseat role in the family business but it is an active role and one which takes him back to Swords and Dublin on a regular basis. The Bewley’s business matters too much, he says, both to him and to all the people who work in it. It is not just something to walk away from.

In the age of Barack Obama, however, Paddy Campbell is eloquent proof that “change” can happen. Yes, he can – paint and sculpt, that is.

An Altro Mondo/Another World is at the Palazzo Comunale di Fiesole in Florence until October 17th