An Irishman's Diary
George Campbell became so attached to Spain that he began to look and behave like a native son of Andalucia as the years went on. His great talent as a painter, first hesitantly displayed in the largely indifferent Belfast of his youth in the early 1940s, flowered brilliantly among the Flamenco dancers and musicians, fishermen and matadors of southern Spain. His passion for the region and the work it inspired found a ready acceptance among the people and those who had the money to buy bought. Wesley Boyd writes
Not surprisingly, most of the work now on display in a retrospective exhibition in Malaga has been collected from around the area; only a few pieces had to be sent from Ireland.
George was drawn to Spain in the early 1950s, long before the days of mass tourism. He persuaded his fellow Belfast artist, Gerard Dillon, to travel with himself and his wife Madge. "We went third-class rail all the way," Madge recalls, "down through France and into Spain, on to Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia, Granada, Malaga, and ended up in a little village just east of Malaga called Petregalejo."
The Franco era
It was the days when Franco ruled with a rigid fist. Strangers were viewed with suspicion by the authorities. When George and Gerard went down to the shoreline to sketch they were quickly surrounded by armed soldiers and ordered to desist. Eventually they learned they had to obtain licences from the local police, allowing them to draw and paint at will.
After that George and Madge returned to spend every winter in Spain, always in Petregalejo. It was then a small fishing village, a village that has now been smothered by a vast tourist campsite of the million and one skyscrapers of the Costa del Sol.
It had two great assets for a painter: the light was marvellous and the cost of living was low. Sardines bought for a few coins from the local boats were frequent visitors to the table. "At times I felt like a mobile cat-food factory," George used to quip.
He never tired of Spain, but decided to pursue his art in London. There were six or so lean years in a small flat off Maida Vale. Friends persuaded the Irish Club in Eaton Square to let George and his friend Dillon have the use of a room free of charge to exhibit their paintings. They did not sell much and on one busy night patrons of the club found the paintings useful for hanging their coats on before proceeding across the hall to the bar. George found little inspiration in London and visited Spain as often as money and opportunity allowed. In a BBC television programme years later he recalled: "I couldn't handle London, didn't want to draw it. There was too much of everything." Spain was his country and Spain encapsulated him.
It ignited his imagination and fired his energy. His painting explored the many aspects of its exuberant life - the bullfights, the dancers, gypsies, fishermen, market women, religious processions and, time after time, the Flamenco guitarists.
He became fluent in the language and highly skilled at playing the guitar - he was one of the few foreigners who was recognised as an equal by the Flamenco musicians of Andalucia. His love of the music was so intense that he got his guitars hand-crafted by masters in the Sierra Nevada. Once, after he had returned from Spain to settle in Dublin, at a party in his house in Ranelagh he had an argument with another great lover of Spain, the journalist Seamus Kelly (a former Quidnunc of this newspaper) about who was the best guitar maker in Andalucia. It was no gentle exchange of views; it was a passionate debate between two men of knowledge and conviction. Neither would yield and eventually Seamus stormed out of the house. They did not speak to each other again for about five years.
George's long attachment to Spain was formally recognized by the Spanish Government in 1978 when he was made a Commander with the Insignia and Privileges of the Order of the Merito Civile, the equivalent of a knighthood.
A year later he died suddenly in Dublin. The following year, in a rare (for the time) hands-across-the-border gesture, delicately engineered by the founder and then director of the Spanish Cultural Institute in Dublin, Antonio Sierra, the arts councils of the Republic and of Northern Ireland joined with the institute in establishing the George Campbell Memorial Travel Award. This annual bursary alternates between North and South and allows Irish artists to live and work for a period in Spain.
The vitality of George's paintings of daily life in Andalucia are now illuminating the walls of the Ambito Cultural Gallery in the prestigious El Corte Ingles department store in Malaga. A few streets away, four of his friends and fellow artists, Manus Walsh of Clare and George Walsh of Dublin, Stefan Von Reizwitz of Germany and Enrique Perez Almeda of Spain, are holding a joint exhibition in tribute to George in the Pablo Ruiz Gallery in Malaga. Both exhibitions will run until the end of this month.