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Robert Richmond Campbell (1902–1972)

by Christine Finnimore

This article was published:

Robert Richmond Campbell (1902-1972), artist and gallery administrator, was born on 18 July 1902 in Edinburgh, eldest son of Alfred Richmond Campbell, commercial traveller, and his wife Isabella Jane, née Thompson. Educated locally at George Watson's College and at Wallasey Grammar School, Cheshire, England, in 1916 Bob migrated with the family to Brisbane where he worked as a commercial artist. Determined to become a painter, he moved to Melbourne and from 1922 to 1940 lived mainly from his art.

The financial success of his first exhibition, at Sedon Galleries in 1928, enabled him to travel to Europe with Rupert Bunny. Campbell lived in Paris and London, and sketched his way through France, Spain, England and Scotland. Influenced by the work of Camille Pissaro, Claude Monet, J. M. W. Turner, Peter de Wint and Wilson Steer, he had the ability to capture atmospheric effects of light. During the Depression, however, he had to paint cheap portraits to make ends meet and he returned to Australia in 1932.

On 13 June 1933 Campbell married Jean Elizabeth, daughter of J. H. Young, in a secular ceremony at her parents' home at Waverton, Sydney. An assistant in her father's Macquarie Galleries, she later became an art historian and critic. The young couple lived in Sydney and on islands off the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland. Campbell conveyed the shimmering effects of tropical light by using delicate, high-key colours and a restrained palette; his broad washes, luminous effects and decisive lines displayed the controlled simplicity of Oriental art. By the 1950s he was widely regarded as a leading Australian water-colourist.

Having taught part time in Sydney, in 1941 Campbell moved to Tasmania to head the department of art at Launceston Technical College where he abolished the practice of live models posing 'nude' in swimming costumes. Appointed curator of the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1947, he was president of the Perth Society of Artists. In 1949 he became the first director of the Queensland National Art Gallery: he raised it from the 'worst and dirtiest in Australia to the top ranks', and in 1951 organized a travelling exhibition, the 1951 Queensland Jubilee Art Train.

As director (1951-67) of the National Gallery of South Australia, he promoted art in Australia and Australian art in the world. (Sir) Ivor Hele's portrait (held by the Queensland Art Gallery), which won the Archibald prize in 1955, showed Campbell as a reflective, private person, with bushy eyebrows, receding hairline, bow-tie and breast-pocket handkerchief. He was courteous and personable, strongly built and of middle height, with expressive, blue eyes, a resonant voice and a passion for art that inspired others.

With grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (1956) and from the South Australian government, Campbell visited the United States of America, Britain and Europe. Under his direction the N.G.S.A. was extended by a wing that set new standards in art museum display, workshop and office facilities; the gallery's board was enlarged and staff doubled; the Australian holdings were consolidated and improved, while collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British water-colours and of Aboriginal art were initiated. Educational services increased, and Campbell gave many of the lectures, broadcasts and painting demonstrations. He was also responsible for numerous exhibitions, particularly as visual arts director (1960-68) of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. The gallery attracted valuable bequests and established the M. Vizard-Wholohan prizes. Attendances soared. Campbell was, as well, a council-member of the South Australian School of Arts, and a member of the Royal South Australian Society of Arts and of the Australian Water-Colour Institute.

From 1952 to 1972 Campbell served on the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board which met in Canberra and built up the Australian collection for an Australian national gallery. On the board's behalf, he organized the large exhibition, Australian Painting—Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary, which was shown at the National Gallery of Canada and in 1962 at the Tate gallery, London. That year he published The Paintings of Tom Roberts. An adviser to the Federal government's Historic Memorials Committee, in 1965 he sat on the committee of inquiry into the proposed national gallery. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1958 and C.M.G. in 1967. Next year he took an exhibition of Australian art to India.

Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, Campbell died of a ruptured dissecting aneurysm of the aorta on 30 September 1972 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated. His family holds a 1930 self-portrait and a bust by John Dowie. Campbell's work is in all State and major regional galleries; six retrospective exhibitions have been held since his death.

Select Bibliography

  • Art Gallery of South Australia, Robert Campbell 1902-1972, exhibition catalogue (Adel, 1973)
  • Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston), Robert Richmond Campbell: An Australian Impressionist, exhibition catalogue (Launc, 1986)
  • J. Campbell, Australian Watercolour Painters, 1780 to the Present Day (Syd, 1989)
  • Report of Art Gallery of South Australia, in Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1951 to 1968-69
  • Kalori, 10, no 4, Dec 1972, p 3
  • Art and Australia, 11, no 2, Dec 1973, p 176
  • News (Adelaide), 31 Jan 1962
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Oct 1972
  • R. R. Campbell, biographical notes (Art Gallery of South Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Robert Campbell (transcript, 1961 or 62, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Christine Finnimore, 'Campbell, Robert Richmond (1902–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 July, 1902
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


30 September, 1972 (aged 70)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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