Irish paintbrush, flamenco soul

Fishing Village El Palo, by George Campbell.
Fishing Village El Palo, by George Campbell.
  • Malaga and Arklow remember George 'Jorge' Campbell on the centenary of his birth

  • Arklow, the town in Ireland in which he was born is showing a retrospective exhibition of his works and a prize for Spanish-Irish studies has been created in his name

That day in May 1979 dawned cold and sad in a small Irish town. Only the flowers provided a note of colour in the cemetery. There were numerous wreaths on the grave, but one of them stood out among the others. Its message almost sounded out of place, from somewhere that was warm and light at that same time of year: "From your friends in Malaga," it read.

Stefan von Reiswitz, Jorge Lindell, Enrique Pérez Almeda and the members of the Palmo group of artists had not forgotten their Irish friend. The one with whom they used to share exhibitions, go out for drinks and enjoy flamenco.

George Campbell amusingly displays his feeling about war in this photo taken in the 1960s at his friend Stefan’s house.

George Campbell amusingly displays his feeling about war in this photo taken in the 1960s at his friend Stefan’s house. / COLECCIÓN PÉREZ ALMEDA

George Campbell was as talented at playing the guitar as he was at wielding a paintbrush to portray the fishermen in the Malaga district of El Palo, where he used to live for part of each year.

It is now 100 years since George 'Jorge' Campbell was born, and this centenary has triggered memories of him in both the countries he called home: in Ireland and Spain, in Arklow and in Malaga.

"He spoke Spanish with a Malaga accent and he had an enviable collection of flamenco records," says José Antonio Sierra, founder and director of the Cervantes Institute in Dublin, who now also lived in Malaga.

“This centenary is the opportune time to make people more aware of George and his legacy, because he was the best ambassador Malaga has ever had in that country,” he added.

Sculptor Stefan von Reiswitz remembers how Campbell used to say, "I won’t be coming back again," every time he returned to the country of his birth. He always did, though, returning every winter to his southern refuge and his friends in Malaga.

He travelled by ship, because his fear of heights meant he couldn’t even walk up the steps of a plane. He couldn’t hide his fear of travel.

"One day, on the way to El Torcal, he opened the car door as it was going round a bend and tried to get out," Stefan von Reiswitz told the press shortly after Campbell's death.

Enrique Pérez Almeda, Madge Campbell, Vicente Martín Bonilla and George Campbell.

Enrique Pérez Almeda, Madge Campbell, Vicente Martín Bonilla and George Campbell. / COLECCIÓN PÉREZ ALMEDA

From gloves to paintbrush

Jorge Campbell loved painting scenes from El Palo and other parts of Malaga city. Some of his works are on display at the Museum of Malaga and the Antequera museum Also, together with artists from Malaga and the Palmo group, he was a pioneer in the 1960s in calling for the city to have a contemporary art centre.

Without a doubt, he would be very proud today of the way his adoptive city has developed in terms of culture, says his friend José Antonio Sierra. A roundabout has even been named after him in Cerrado de Calderón. Nevertheless, Sierra believes more should be done to pay tribute to the legacy of the artist, on the centenary of his birth. Arklow, for example, where he was born in 1917, is showing a retrospective exhibition of his work.

Although art was his passport round the world, Campbell had been an actor and a boxer before becoming a painter.

"He once told me he gave up boxing because he preferred painting to being punched," says Sierra.

That sense of irony was characteristic of Campbell when talking about himself; he also had an ebullient personality and a very Andalusian sense of humour.

"When we used to meet up in a bar people would always come and join us and we would end up with 15 of us, and George at the heart of it all," says Sierra. "He was also an expert on Irish whiskey. He used to drink Powers."

Stefan von Reiswitz often accompanied Jorge Campbell on the search for friendship and flamenco, and recalls how they would travel from Malaga to Fuengirola, where no art gallery or bar went unvisited. He did, however, use the Buena Sombra bar in Calle Sánchez Pastor, which was a hangout for local bohemians in the 1960s and 1970s, as a meeting point.

"Campbell was one of the finest abstract painters," says Stefan.

"He was also a great figurative painter, a great portrait and landscape artist and expert in every technique. He was such a contradiction: sometimes he was religious, sometimes he was a barbarian, sometimes he was an aetheist and as a person he was splendid, confusing and domineering. There was no way he could ever be persuaded to go home before the early hours of the morning."