Ken Campbell obituary | Books

My friend the artist Ken Campbell, who has died aged 82, created book art that was unique, unclassifiable, compelling both visually and to the touch, and challenging.

Ken’s art was informed by his considerable trade skills and executed on traditional printing presses with secret techniques and inks – all of which he later happily abandoned with the coming of the digital revolution. His subject matter ranged from the personal, Father’s Hook (1978), a book of poetry dedicated to his father, to the political, Ten Years of Uzbekistan (1994), the metaphysical, Execution (1990), and everything in between.

His books themselves – he created two dozen from 1978 onwards – are works of art, whether with loose pages compressed between two pieces of plywood, or lovingly bound, asymmetrically. Sets of his books are in the collections of the rare books division of the US Library of Congress, the Yale Center for British Art, the New York Public Library and the British Library, and his work was exhibited widely in museums and galleries. In 1995 he was interviewed as part of the National Life Stories: Artists’ Lives series for the British Library’s sound archive

Not bad for a boy from the East End of London who came to his profession via an apprenticeship in the old-school printing trades at George Reynolds of Stepney Green (1954-59).

An image from Father’s Hook (1978) by Ken Campbell, which was made from handmade Chinese paper and contains poems in tribute to his dockworker father

Born at the outbreak of the second world war, to George, a docker, and Elizabeth (nee York), who applied herself to many skilled occupations, including, eventually, in the Ministry of Defence, Ken went to Chislehurst and Sidcup grammar school. After several years of apprenticeship, while also attending the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts on day release, he finally persuaded his reluctant employer to release him to study full time for a national diploma in typographic design.

On completing his studies in 1964, Ken worked as a freelance graphic designer. He then taught (1968-77) at North East London Polytechnic, where he was involved in setting up a communication design course. He also taught part-time at the Central School of Art and Design.

In the late 1970s he taught at what is now known as the Bath Academy of Art, then for a year (1980-81) at Concordia University in Montreal, and York University, Toronto. Until 1975, he undertook freelance design work alongside his teaching career. It wasn’t until he was in his 40s, in 1985, that he decided to work exclusively on his art.

Throughout his career he was aided and abetted by his wife, Ruth (nee Droller), a psychologist whom he met at a party in London in 1966 and married two years later. Around 2010, Ken and Ruth left the East End after 20 years and settled in Bristol to be with their daughters and grandchildren. He loved a celebration, and would hold parties in unlikely venues (I recall a scout hut hanging over Bristol harbour) with live music from local musicians. He was known for his willingness to hold on to a broyges, and for his storytelling and abiding loyalty.

Ken is survived by Ruth, their daughters, Sadie and Esther, and grandchildren, Dot and Hal, and his sister, Dianne.

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