Last week Sunday Newsday paid tribute to historian and painter Adrian Camps-Campins, who died on January 11.
This week, reader JENNIFER CHRISTINE CASTAGNE-EICK recalls the spring of 2000, when she and her husband commissioned Camps-Campins to paint Knowsley, formerly the home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The first time we thought we were hearing the jingle of some extra change in our pockets, my husband and I, with my cousin Michelle Hindmarch in tow, went to tea with Adrian Camp-Campins, to broach the subject of commissioning a painting from him.
A painting by Adrian was at the top of our wish list, and his paintings very rarely went on sale in galleries. We were hoping he would agree to paint Knowsley for us. My grandparents Kitty and Geoffrey Inglefield had had their wedding reception there, and as the home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it also appealed to my husband, who had been stationed at the German Embassy in Trinidad for a few years.
Adrian said he had already painted Knowsley, but from the side, and wanted to do it again from the front.
Relief! My excitement mounted and I held my breath, hoping we could afford his work.
But Adrian said he would not do the painting for a fee. Instead, he wanted to come and live with us in Brussels and paint the painting in our home there. Those were his conditions: it was not a choice. He would pay his airfare and retain the copyright to the work, and we would host him and keep the original.
We were very surprised, but we agreed, and eventually, a four-week period was chosen. Our home had an attic which would work very well as a studio.
Adrian sent me instructions to prepare a plywood board (82 by 110 cm) and have it waiting for him so he could start work without delay.
And so said, so done – he worked from the day he arrived to the day he left.
I had thought he would paint faster and have more free time to explore, but in spite of working every day, he had to extend his stay by two weeks. He would have stayed and painted for even longer, but we had a trip scheduled that we could not postpone.
At his request, Adrian fixed his own breakfast and I made dinner, and lunch we played by ear. I am sure he had been fed by better cooks, but he was always very appreciative.
Every single day for the six weeks he was with us, he worked on the painting, and almost every day he went for a walk in the beautiful Woluwe Park at the end of our street. Sometimes he walked to the nearby mall, or we went on an outing. I am afraid, however, that our company may have been a bit staid for him, as he never managed to convince us to take him to a disco with foaming soap bubbles.
Before leaving Brussels, Adrian told me he had never done a painting of that size and detail in such a short timeframe. I find it such a pity he was not more prolific.
Adrian’s process, as I witnessed it, was painstaking. He did not trust his freehand drawing skills. In his words, “I took an art course in Paris, and all my nudes ended up looking like cockroaches.” He used photocopies of pictures and photographs, scaled to size, to draw the outlines onto his paintings.
Adrian then realised I had my heart set on a Carnival scene with decorated cars, as my grandmother had once described that to me and I had grown up in a car-loving household. We scrambled to find a book with cars of the chosen era.
I had no idea at the time what this Carnival scene would mean for Adrian’s timeline, but he graciously accommodated my wish. He seemed almost reluctant to decorate the beautiful cars, but he did put flowers on one and flags on another.
In his greeting card showing The Victory Carnival, Knowsley – March 3 and 4, 1919, he included some wonderful Carnival photos of decorated cars from that era.
Just as we thought he would have two well-deserved free days at the end of his stay, he sacrificed them to paint our dogs Hugo and Victor into the painting, to “anchor” the purple car on the far right. To this day I remain deeply touched by his generosity. Hugo and Victor were wonderful characters and very precious to us.
Every evening after dinner, at Adrian’s invitation, we went up to the studio to see what he had done that day and to discuss the next steps. It was very interesting to watch him put together the different layers of the composition and to make adjustments he felt were needed.
It was also intimidating, as Adrian always generously asked for our suggestions and critique – but we did not want to interfere with his talent and vision. His ability to see how the different parts of the composition would relate to each other and affect each other, and what was needed for interest and balance, was inspiring.
As things progressed we got a little more experienced, thanks to his coaching, and a bit bolder, and we did make the very odd useful suggestion or remark, for example about positioning the balloons, or pointing out that the pairs of figures in the upstairs windows were starting to look like rigid twosomes confined to their respective windowpanes – Adrian solved this by splitting the last pair to the right.
Almost at the finish line, when we were completely enamoured of the painting, Adrian started to paint over the yellow of the building so the colour would last better. Unfortunately, I did not like the new, duller shade at all. Adrian took pity on my distress and backtracked, but the tower remained a bit brighter and lighter than the other yellow areas.
One criticism which Adrian rightfully refused to accept was my husband’s and my joint intense dislike of the small horned figure to the left of the upstairs balcony. He would not budge. He laughed and insisted it had to be there.
And of course, he was right. It is one of the things that I most enjoy when I look at the painting now – a reminder to me both of Adrian’s laughing, fun side, and of the effort he put into defending things he felt should remain.
Rest in peace, Adrian Camps-Campins, and thank you.