Campbell, George Frederick (1917–79), painter and stained-glass artist, was born 29 July 1917 in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, youngest of three sons of Matthew Arthur Campbell (d. 1925), caterer, and Gretta Campbell (née Bowen) (qv), her professional name as an artist). In 1921 the family moved to Belfast, where he was educated before boarding (1929–35) at the Masonic School, Clonskeagh, Dublin.
He returned to Belfast (1939), worked in a newspaper office and an aircraft factory, and in 1941 produced vivid paintings in response to the blitz: ‘I think the blitz started me painting . . . I painted in watercolours and oils, all the burst girders and the crashed about streets’ (Catto, 136–7). In 1943 he and his brother Arthur, also an artist, exhibited together at Mol's Gallery, Belfast; they published a booklet of drawings, Ulster in black and white (Belfast, 1943), and edited Now in Ulster (Belfast, 1944), an anthology of prose, verse, and paintings. In 1944 Campbell was a founding member of the Progressive Painters Group and of the NI branch of the Artists' International Association, which were established to raise public awareness of art. Largely self-taught, he was encouraged by Gerard Dillon (qv), with whom he co-founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (1943); exhibited with him (1943) in John Lamb's gallery in Portadown; and painted with him in Connemara, producing evocative landscapes of the west of Ireland and its people. He subsequently exhibited ‘Mostly Connemara’ at the Kenny Art Gallery, Galway (1977).
His first one-man show, a financial and critical success, was held in the Victor Waddington Galleries, Dublin (1946). He exhibited regularly in Belfast (one-man shows being organised from 1949 by CEMA and its successor, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland), at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, Dublin, and at the RHA (from 1947), where he showed nearly a hundred paintings and became an associate (1954) and a full member (1964). He was elected a member (1954) of the Water Colour Society of Ireland. In 1967 Eight reproductions by two Irish artists, George Campbell, RHA, and Arthur Armstrong was published by the Walsh Studio, Dublin. His work was exhibited in many countries and is represented in practically all Irish collections.
From 1951 he spent part of each year in Spain, its landscape, its people, and especially its music providing the inspiration for some of his best known and most exciting paintings; he exhibited in Torremolinos (1955), Malaga (1973), and Madrid (1977). Fluent in Spanish, and an hon. member of the La Buena Sombra (Malaga) Arts Society, he was made knight commander (1978) by the Spanish government; the arts councils of the Republic and Northern Ireland and the Instituto Cervantes jointly established the George Campbell memorial award (a travel grant to Spain for young Irish artists). In 2002 it was announced that a street or square would be named after him in Malaga.
A romantic, he painted many subjects in a variety of styles, always attempting to catch the atmosphere and essence of his subject matter. ‘Painting’, he said, ‘is a part of my whole fabric, part of breathing and reading and eating and sleeping and walking and moving’ (Ir. Times, 19 May 1979). The 1960s were the high point of his career: his paintings include ‘Blind flamenco guitarist’ (1961–2), ‘African objects’ (1962), ‘Jesus falls the third time’ (1962), and ‘Cluain Mhic Nois Uimhir 11’ (1966), for which he won the Douglas Hyde gold medal for the best historical painting at the Oireachtas exhibition (1966). Other awards included the Sacred Art award (1961), the Open award of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (1962), an award in the exhibition of modern church art held by the Arts Council (1962), and the Oireachtas landscape prize (1969).
Campbell did not confine himself to painting. He designed stained-glass windows, beginning with ‘The sower sowing the seed’ in St Colman's church, Tierneevan, Gort, Co. Galway, and subsequently for St Dominic's church, Athy, Co. Kildare (1965), which represented a breakthrough in ecumenical art in Ireland, and three rose windows for Galway cathedral (1965). He wrote articles for magazines, including Artists International (1970) and published Eyeful of Ireland (1974), a comic interpretation of the history of Ireland; the works he illustrated included Peter Harbison's Guide to the national monuments of Ireland (1970), W. J. Hogan's Out of season (1978), and the magazine Ireland of the welcomes. His versatility extended to music: an accomplished guitarist, he was accepted as a proficient player of flamenco in Malaga and performed as a classical guitarist on BBC radio. He devised settings for the theatre; made films for television on Ireland, on Spain, and on his art; was the subject of the film ‘Things within things’, commissioned by RTE (1972); and became a household name in Ireland. Having lived in London from 1954, he settled in Dublin in the 1960s and lived at 2 Florence Terrace, Leeson Park Ave. In 1975 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland commissioned Campbell to paint a portrait of his mother which appeared in the Women of Ulster exhibition. His brothers, Arthur and Stanley, were painters. He died (18 May 1979) in Dublin and was buried at Laragh, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. A retrospective exhibition was held in Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda (1992). He married (29 August 1942) Margaret McNeill Thompson, who survived him; they had no children.