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The exhibition that's bringing back to life the art of the Belfast Boys

A gallery in Co Down has reignited the legacy of George Campbell, one of our most famous artists who has faded from memory, writes Una Brankin

Published 20/08/2015

Picture perfect: George Campbell’s work will be showcased in a new exhibition
Picture perfect: George Campbell’s work will be showcased in a new exhibition
Picture perfect: George Campbell’s work will be showcased in a new exhibition
Picture perfect: George Campbell’s work will be showcased in a new exhibition
Drawing inspiration: one of George’s paintings
Paying tribute: Exhibition curator Karen Reihill with George Campbell’s old friend from London, Hal Rice

George Campbell was the Terry Bradley of his day, in more ways than one. Both acclaimed Belfast artists, Campbell was a stylish man with a pencil-line moustache, which gave him the appearance of a golden-age Hollywood movie star. And Terry, a former model, has a remarkable resemblance to the matinee idol Errol Flynn.

The personal similarities end there. Whereas Campbell was a self-assured, confident character, Terry's quite shy and introspective. He is, however, as passionate about his work as Campbell was, and the influence of the now deceased artist is evident in some of Terry's dramatic paintings.

Now, some of Campbell's most stunning works can be seen in a unique exhibition, along with several of his contemporaries, at the Ava Gallery, where they form part of the Clandeboye Classical Music Festival with Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland.

"George Campbell was very influential and he took a lot of artists - and musicians - under his wing," says David Britton of Adams Auctions.

"This exhibition is the main visual art show which will take place in Northern Ireland in 2015. It is of museum quality and hangs well in Clandeboye. It's a lovely setting, especially with all the wonderful music filling the gallery."

On summer loan from Adam's Auctioneer Vault, George Campbell and The Belfast Boys is a great opportunity to see work not readily available to the public - all the 90 works have been borrowed from private collections by Adam's Auctioneers, bringing many of these paintings into public view for the first time in almost half a century.

In the years immediately after World War Two, George Campbell and his group of mainly self-taught artists - the Belfast Boys - burst onto the Irish art scene. At that time, they dominated the Irish Exhibitions of Living Art, and were all represented by the Victor Waddington Galleries in Dublin until its closure in the late 1950s.

But their popularity started to wane by the end of the Sixties and their legacy had faded somewhat since then.

Although there was a retrospective of his works in Drogheda in 1992, there has been no major exhibition of Campbell's work either here or in Dublin since that time.

Adam's are rectifying that by hosting this, the biggest exhibition ever staged of his work, including sections devoted to some of his fellow Belfast artists: Gerard Dillon, Daniel O'Neill and Arthur Armstrong - the latter two, like Campbell, have never been honoured with a retrospective since their deaths. There will also be smaller displays of work by artists such as Colin Middleton, James MacIntyre and John Turner.

And in a real treat for lovers of local art, the show includes rarely seen work from Campbell's second Belfast series, painted towards the end of his life.

"The former BBC NI broadcaster Martin Dillon bundled him into his car and took him into the rough areas, so what he painted was true to life," says David.

"He returned to the province quite often later in life. The journalist Tom McGurk would bring him around, too."

Now in its sixth year, Adam's summer loan show is being curated by Karen Reihill and is accompanied by an extensive 160-page catalogue detailing the life and works of this talented group of painters, led by George Campbell.

"We hope that this will put Campbell's work in context and help lead to a re-assessment, both of his work and that of the Belfast Boys, by a new generation of art critics, students and enthusiasts," says David.

"At the time of his death in 1979, George Campbell was probably the best known Irish artist to the general public, due to his many radio and television appearances on both BBC and RTE, as well as numerous newspaper profiles. In the decades since, he has largely been ignored and neglected."

Campbell was a modernist in his style but had the commercial sense to keep his art relatable.

"I think an abstract must be rich in content," he once said. "It must have roots, no matter how far these roots go. It must have meaning. I am bored by a few simple shapes that convey nothing to me. Mondrian? He's just a bore."

By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Belfast Boys group was no longer seen as avant-garde enough by the critics, and since their deaths in the Seventies, they have drifted out of the public consciousness. But, despite the fact that Campbell was more or less ignored in his later years in Ireland, the opposite was true in his adopted country of Spain, where he lived for six months of the year with his wife Margaret, the high cheek-boned beauty depicted in many of his portraits.

In 1978, the Spanish Government made Campbell a Knight Commander of Spain, the equivalent of a British Knighthood.

He died the following year in Dublin. In 2002, a George Campbell retrospective was held in Malaga, which has even have named a roundabout after him, and in 2006 he was highlighted in the city's bid for European City of Culture.

George Campbell and the Belfast Boys is on exhibition at the Ava Gallery, Clandeboye Estate, Co Down until September 3. Admission is free and catalogue is £8 or free to download at

From the Blitz to the Spanish sun

George Campbell was born in Arklow, Co Wicklow, the son of Gretta Bowen (1880-1981) and Boer War veteran Matthew Campbell (died 1925).

He attended school in Dublin before moving to Belfast to live with his widowed mother and two brothers, working for a while at W&G Baird, printers of the Belfast Telegraph.

At the time of the Belfast Blitz, he was working in an aircraft factory and began to paint, taking the bomb-damage as his subject. He was one of the founders of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943.

With his brother Arthur, he published Now in Ulster (1944), an anthology of short stories, essays and poetry by young Belfast writers.

After the war Campbell became increasingly interested in Spain.

In 1946, he came to know Spaniards who had settled in Dublin, and when in London painted visiting Spanish dancers in their traditional costume.

He finally visited Spain in the early 1950s, encouraged by his friendship with Gerald Dillon and "an interest in bohemian characters".

He lived there for much of the next 25 years.

Campbell made stained glass windows for Galway Cathedral. A member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, he won the Douglas Hyde Gold Medal in 1966 and the Oireachtas Prize for Landscape in 1969.

Creative work still sought after

  • George Campbell and The Belfast Boys exhibition seeks to showcase the work of the acclaimed artist and captivate a whole new audience
  • He was described as outgoing and gregarious, as well as being a fine guitarist
  • Campbell's abstract cityscape 'His Dublin On A Showery Day' sold for £46,000 in 2006
  • His oil paintings have fetched between £670-£2,470 at auction in the last year. His watercolours and sketches are also very valuable

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