Dandelions, doors, ducks: Peter Campbell, 1937–2011

A fox walks past the South London house of Peter Campbell, in his last cover illustration for the London Review of Books. Image: London Review of Books

A fox walks past the South London house of Peter Campbell, in his last cover illustration for the London Review of Books. Image: London Review of Books

The 1997 New Zealand historical atlas is much like a pre-internet version of Te Ara, with its swarm of little graphics and sidebars expanding on the subject of each of its large-format double-page maps. From the perspective of how specific places have altered over time, the Atlas deals with many of the subjects covered in Te Ara – earliest Polynesian settlement, glaciers, the Waikato wars of the early 1860s, Presbyterians and the ‘demon drink’, and mid-20th-century life in small-town New Zealand.

Here at Te Ara we refer to the Atlas all the time, and some of us have worked on both projects, including Malcolm McKinnon, who was general editor of the Historical atlas and has overseen Te Ara’s Places theme, the section that covers every geographical region in New Zealand, and urban historian Ben Schrader, responsible for Te Ara’s city entries.

But many talented individuals contributed to the success of the Atlas and it is sad to have to record the passing of one of them. Peter Campbell was a New Zealand artist best known for his airy, elegant cover illustrations for the London Review of Books (LRB), the erudite fortnightly which provides authoritative commentary on history, politics and literary criticism. He worked on the LRB since its first issue in 1979, and the cover of the current issue bears his drawing of a fox walking past the South London house where he and his wife Winifred, also New Zealand-born, had lived since 1963.

In a tribute to Peter Campbell in the current issue its editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, says that he graduated from Victoria University in 1958 with a philosophy degree and an extra-curricular enthusiasm for book design, developed while working with the pyrotechnic poet, publisher, typographer and boxer Denis Glover. ‘Tramping trips at Christmas settled the New Zealand landscape in my mind,’ he wrote, and his homeland’s mountains, trees, architecture and fauna recurred in his writings and artwork throughout a life spent mainly in London. There he began working for the BBC on the richly illustrated books that accompanied major series such as Civilisation, The ascent of man and Life on earth. Once he began producing the covers for the LRB, his witty, meticulous style came to define the review. Mary-Kay Wilmers says, ‘More adjusted than most to his own wants and necessities, and so better able to accommodate other people’s, he was an exemplary person to work with.’ Campbell also wrote articles for the LRB on a bewildering variety of subjects – architecture and art history, dandelions, cycling, doors, ducks and his favourite places in the British Isles.

He played a critical part in the early development of the Historical atlas. ‘We called for design proposals in 1990–91,’ recalls Malcolm McKinnon. ‘Peter Campbell and Margaret Cochrane – a very accomplished typographer and graphic designer in her own right – submitted a proposal. Theirs was by far the best and we adopted it as our template. We made some changes, however, so they are not specifically credited with the design. But they are thanked in the preface to the Atlas, and that thanks was very heartfelt.’ It is gratifying to learn that an exhibition of Peter Campbell’s superb artwork will open in Wellington next year.

Te Ara salutes and farewells this panoptically curious, polymathic son of Aotearoa. E te tohunga mahi toi no ngā mea katoa – hoki atu ki a rātou kua whetūrangihia, moe mai ra, takoto mai ra, okioki e.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Tony Murrow || December 14th, 2011

    LRB also published Campbell’s “Memories of New Zealand” in the issue following his last fox-covered contribution: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n23/peter-campbell/memories-of-new-zealand

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