BEACHY HEAD, STARS

© copyright The Artist

BEACHY HEAD, STARS 1973

Jeffery Camp (1923 – )

Details

Dimension
292.5 X 294.5 CM
Media
OIL ON BOARD
Accession number
P6436

Summary

The bright white cliffs of England’s south coast have long served the national imagination. However their pristine appearance, as opposed to the grubbier cliffs of Dieppe across the Channel, is due to erosion, something that Jeffery Camp has observed with minute detail over many years. In the 1970s, Camp was living with his wife in Hastings, just a short drive away from the famous headland, Beachy Head. Its great height grants unparalleled views, but also makes it one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world. It is one of Camp’s prevailing subjects, since, ‘until a policeman told me how humans jumped’, Camp recalls, ‘I had concentrated on the splendour of vast spaces.’

Camp was born on the outskirts of Lowestoft, a fishing town on the cold North Sea, not a sensual place. He shares his birthplace with the composer Benjamin Britten, a few years older, in whose opera Peter Grimes (1945) the sea enters at interludes, a lyrical, incessant presence. Camp left for Scotland during the war, to study at Edinburgh College of Art. Like his tutor, William Gillies, who painted the Scottish landscape with bright Bonnard-inspired colours, drawing always comes first for Camp. He sketches outside and later squares up preparatory drawings on canvas or board. Painting is the preserve of the studio, where imagination and memory aid observation. Unlike Gillies, Camp looks at the view through his own painted frame; reality is suspended and in the studio, he is free to people landscapes with loved ones or models.

Although he had made some nocturnal sketches on Beachy Head, in this painting, Camp includes himself and his wife peering into the vast night from the cliff edge, noses tipped up to breathe in the sea air, scarf waving in the wind. Bodies and landscape are as one: their profiles, steep as the cliffs, are picked out by chalky highlights against a ground of dark blues and greens. Speckles over the surface describe an all-enveloping sensation of mist, ocean spray and flecks of chalk in the wind. Yellow lights glow out at sea, mirrored by the dots of starlight above, although exact navigation becomes irrelevant in the soupy, dreamy perspective. In the artist’s book Almanac (2010), there is some midsummer night’s advice: ‘Daydream of walking, or bounding, at Beachy Head, if you wish, but do not risk a nightmare there. I dreamed a dive on one occasion and only just managed to wake up fast enough.’

The vast diamond shape (four triangles attached to a central square panel) invites the viewer to dive in; at nearly three metres wide, the horizon line has an epic stretch. Within its four points, the lighthouse beam swings out in four directions, giving the picture a sense of internal rotation, like some dark kaleidoscope. Putting words to the picture, Camp has said: ‘In the east, monasteries and holy places are often built over sheer drops, high places are good for meditation, oceanic feelings are aimed for. In the west, great string quartets plunge straight in.’ Camp reclaims Beachy Head from the nation, and makes it personal.

Text by Dorothy Feaver