Duncan Campbell: Gallerist who championed the work of the White Stag group
Thursday 19 May 2011
"Unique" is a word to be used with caution, but it seems justified for the London gallery Duncan Campbell ran for a quarter of a century. It was a magnet for casual callers, dealers and serious collectors, few of whom left without the offer of a cup of tea. This the proprietor made in a tiny cubby-hole that also accommodated the essential offices, reference books and gallery paraphernalia.
The title Duncan Campbell Contemporary Art could be mistaken for one of those soulless, clinical modern emporia with a large, slightly superior staff operating hours more convenient to them than the public. In fact it was a small, glass-fronted wedge in Thackeray Street, Kensington, where the only staff was Campbell himself. He could be found there seven days a week, surrounded by a cornucopia of paintings, prints, modern sculptures, pottery, tribal art and anything else that might tempt and prove enjoyable to own. Once a caller, you were hooked.
Duncan Campbell was born in Ealing in 1943. His parents, Stewart and Frances Campbell, were minor ballroom-dancing champions and Duncan had one older and one younger sister. After St Nicholas Grammar School in Hillingdon, he attended Ealing Technical College, and joined British European Airways, where he eventually rose to sales management in British Airways, as it became in 1974. In his youth Campbell was a notable athlete, a school boxing champion and keen on football and rugby, also playing tennis for his firm. He kept a television in the gallery, where he could be heard shouting encouragement to, or criticism at, on-screen sportsmen.
Around 1975 Campbell started to buy paintings and began his self-education in art and antiques. He frequented auctions, exhibitions and art fairs all over the country, later taking stands at venues such as Alexandra Palace. He had those invaluable gifts for a dealer; a natural eye for quality, plus an instinct for what people might buy.
Keenness to improve his knowledge never flagged. When in 2005 Brian Kennedy's book on the White Stag group of artists was published withan accompanying exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Duncansuggested that he and I bought cheap air tickets for a dash to see it, have a rendezvous with Kennedy and to tour the Dublin galleries. Being a born dealer, Duncan found two museum-quality pictures for stock: a landscape by Henri Hayden and a flower painting by JB Manson.
White Stag artists included Kenneth Hall and Basil Rakoczi, whose work had been shown in London in the 1930s by Lucy Wertheim. Campbell had handled numerous works from the Wertheim estate that he continued to sell, helping to revive the reputations of artists like David Burton, Phelan Gibb, David Gommon and Humphrey Slater. In recent years he also sold work by Phyllis Bray, Hubert Finney and William Tuck.
For his Robin Mackertich exhibition, around 500 items from the artist's estate had to be fitted into a tiny space. Campbell made it work because he needed to, always being burdened with heavy overheads and without a public-subsidy safety net. And keeping the gallery afloat was a gruelling schedule of living-artist exhibitions. These usually lasted three weeks and each was accompanied by an informative fold-out catalogue, with artist's details, an appreciation and plentiful colour illustrations. Many young artists established a name through Campbell and some older ones found a new outlet.
Campbell's other great passion was for modern British prints by artists including Blair Hughes-Stanton, Clare Leighton, George Mackley and Monica Poole. A special enthusiasm was Rowland Hilder. Campbell offered fine examples by this distinctive delineator of the English landscape, especially of Kent, as well as works by his son, Anthony Flemming. The fact that Hilder's watercolours and etchings were dismissed by many critics was unimportant to Campbell, who appreciated their intrinsic quality and their saleability.
A more recent interest was African tribal art. Relying entirely on his eye, Campbell stocked West African pieces acquired from a source there and others from Portobello Road dealers.
Duncan lived for his gallery, his daughters and six grandchildren. He had a great love of theatre – he saw Cats 15 times – and cinema, especially foreign-language films. Maybe it reflected his early ambition to be an actor.
Duncan died six months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphona, and his funeral reflected his informal unconventionality; decorating the coffin were his grandchildren's drawings and paintings, while music came from Chuck Berry, Mark Bolan and T Rex and the congregation heard a replay of Brian Johnson's hilarious 1991 Test Match Special "leg-over" commentary.
Duncan Stewart Campbell, art dealer: born London 25 February 1943; married 1967 Jenny Price (divorced 1982; two daughters); died Reading 14 February 2011.
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