Catalogue entry

T03215 BEACHY HEAD: BRINK 1975

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 95 3/4 × 59 1/8 (243.7 × 150)
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1981
Prov: Purchased from the artist by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1975
Exh: R A, May–August 1975 (895); British Painting 1952–1977, R A, September–November 1977 (67, repr.); Jeffery Camp: Paintings of Night and Day, Serpentine Gallery, May–June 1978 (repr.; works not numbered in catalogue); Jeffery Camp - Paintings of Night and Day, Cartwright Hall, Bradford, November 1978–January 1979 (28); Narrative Paintings, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, September–October 1979, and tour to the ICA, October–November, City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, January–February, and Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, February–March 1980 (repr.in colour; works not numbered in catalogue)

The figures in the middle ground in this painting are the artist himself (at the right) and his wife, the painter Laetitia Yhap. For many years Camp has included one or both of them in almost all his paintings; they sometimes appear more than once in a single work. Camp sees the inclusion of himself in a painting as one way of establishing a kind of contact with the spectator.

In the late 1960s Camp and Yhap moved to Hastings, Sussex. Until then Camp had never seen Beachy Head, which is a 565 foot high chalk promontory some fourteen miles along the English Channel coast, and three miles s.w. of the coastal town of Eastbourne. Beachy Head swiftly became the principal location of the scenes in Camp's paintings. He and Yhap did not sleep there, as some of these works would suggest, but they visited it at night and in all weathers, often on their way to or from London. However often they visited it, they found it was never the same twice. Camp's first painting of Beachy Head, ‘Beachy Head, Lighthouse by Night’ 1969 includes a portrait of Laetitia Yhap and has strong connections with the Tate's picture. It is reproduced in the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition at the South London Art Gallery, April–May 1973 (page 4).

Already for many years before moving to Sussex, Camp almost always felt it essential to include the sea in his pictures. The Tate's picture is one of many which emphasise the point of junction between land and sea. In the catalogue of his 1978 exhibition cited above, Camp wrote an introductory text (a development of his text in the catalogue of his 1973 retrospective) which included the following passages: ‘In 1923 I began life in Lowestoft, a fishing port swept by cold winds. Conditioned by the flatness of East Anglia, to me fifty years later Beachy Head seems high, shocking and a dream come true.

'...I spent a few years in a rich Suffolk landscape used by Constable and Cotman, and painted pictures filled with trees. Beachy Head is almost without trees; it is a high piece of chalk, and very still.

'... We depend on all the painters of the past... The concentrated Rubens sketches were done with tiny flowing marks and embraced a living drama moving in a tiny compass. I tried to use these means for a different purpose, watching the passing show - out of doors, wherever people were together; at Beachy Head the gliders soar and float. The angels and cherubs of Rubens mark out the depths and extent of his open spaces, make exact the speed and rhythm of his design. The oceanic feelings inspired by Beachy Head, of flowing waters, flowing wind, soaring sails, pulsing hearts, flowing veins, moving gulls, whirring cine films, kicking flints, lurching jackdaws, powdering chalk, gleaming helmets, golden harness, shimmering fabrics of bright colours, the painting and the thrill, are presented to me in an aerial structure without attachment to the closed perspectives of the lowlands of my youth. The brush stroke is there as before, laying out the tangible, untouchable depths of the immeasurable action. The transparency is the idea and degree of presence and there can be no apology for the true sensation, only for the inadequacy of the painter if the figure fails and falls, to become a dead wraith or pale figment.

'Beachy Head is a National Trust beauty spot; people come here to smoke, click cameras, cuddle a lover, pretend to throw a parent over the edge, or actually throw a Coke tin. The danger is part of the fascination, the possibility of a dive to a death too far away for the gore to be seen. A soothing cup of tea in the cafe and a reassuring postcard of the lighthouse make everyone come here.’ Camp developed these and other points in a conversation with the compiler on 10 December 1982 from which all otherwise unattributed statements in this entry are taken.

The Tate's picture combines recollections of a particular moment and of visits to Beachy Head in general with invented aspects. Camp often uses irregular formats of various kinds. The one used in the Tate's painting resulted from his wishing to paint not too large a picture and yet to convey a strong sense of height, depth and breadth. He wanted to emphasise these qualities in order to bring out the precariousness of the subject. Conscious how many contemporary paintings are concerned with security and balance, he was interested in representing a balance that was in jeopardy. The main figures are seen catching their breath at once in a metaphorical and a physical sense. Despite Camp's observation quoted above that Beachy Head is very still, which it often is, the Tate's picture shows one of those moments when the strength of the wind paradoxically makes it difficult to breathe. Wind itself has long been a major subject of Camp's painting; this is one of several works in which its effects are seen at Beachy Head. He feels a special bond with Benjamin Britten, who was born near him at Lowestoft; in his preoccupation with wind he is often reminded of the anonymous ballad, the Lyke Wake Dirge, which evokes the wind and which was one of the texts set to music by Britten in his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Opus 31, 1943. In the Tate's picture, the power of the wind and the precariousness of the main figures are associated with the proximity of the sea, which is a symbol of chaos, the human figures being ‘up against it’, again both physically and metaphorically. As the elements swirl around them, their situation is so precarious that they are seen in a sense almost as disembodied spirits. In this aspect of his painting, Camp feels himself very much a part of an English tradition earlier exemplified by Blake, among others.

The coloured border down two sides of ‘Beachy Head: Brink’ is used, as in many of Camp's paintings, to extend the observed scene both spatially (the greenish right border suggests continuity with the landscape) and temporally (the pinkish left border suggests other times of the day). The two main figures are seen as from an imaginary viewpoint either on one of the irregular chalk stacks which are close to the main cliff or in mid air. Camp's feelings of liberation from the limited perspective possibilities of the flat East Anglian coast coincided at the spatially spectacular Beachy Head with inspiration from great painters of earlier centuries who had depicted the figure from unusual angles. In conversation Camp cited Tintoretto (including his ‘The Nine Muses’ in the Royal Collection), Tiepolo, Poussin, and again Rubens, with special reference to the freedom with which he eliminated parts of the body he did not want to include in a particular painting by manipulating the angle of view, the use of tone and the relationship between large and small brushstrokes. Camp's enthusiasm for painting views looking downwards from a great height was increased by Pieter Brueghel's land- and seascape ‘A Stormy Day’ in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. For Camp the magic of Beachy Head lies partly in the way in which these kinds of contrivance seem there to become one with reality. The variety of levels and the mobility of the horizon almost obviate the need for devices other than those of canvas-shape and border, while the extraordinary quality of the light, enhanced by reflections from the chalk, permits the painter to do almost anything he wants with tone without having to invent. Camp describes Beachy Head as ‘a dance of nature and of art’.

Camp's interest in suspension is apparent in the birds which hang at various heights in the Tate's painting. He was able greatly to develop this interest when, at least four years after he began painting Beachy Head, it became a site for hang gliding. This sport combined his interests in suspension and in suspense, and with its structures of fabric and harness also made possible even more fantastic designs without departing from reality. The lighthouse in the Tate's painting (which was built in 1902) is important to Camp as a focus, and as a key which at once establishes both the scale of the scene and the identity and location of the sea. He likes to be able to include in a picture something which, like a guitar in a Cubist painting, is immediately recognisable.

There were no photographs for or versions of ‘Beachy Head: Brink’ but there was one preliminary drawing (collection Timothy Hyman) which is in pencil, squared up for transfer, approx. 15 × 10 inches. Among the numerous paintings of Camp and Yhap at Beachy Head, the following three show them on the very edge of the cliff: ‘Beachy Head: White Windswept Prospect’ 1972, ‘Beachy Head: Staring in the Wind’ 1972, and ‘Beachy Head: Pointing at Ships’ 1972. Camp and Yhap both appear in the following two pictures which emphasise still more strongly the vertiginous drop beside them: ‘Beachy Head: Sheer Drop’ 1972 and ‘Beachy Head: Spectacular Drop’ 1972. All five of these works are reproduced in the catalogue of Camp's 1973 retrospective. In addition, ‘Beachy Head: Chasm’ 1974, which is reproduced in the catalogue of Camp's 1978 exhibition and which shows Laetitia Yhap alone, is very close in subject to the Tate's picture.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984