In the company of birds: Iain Campbell


p2417 Campbell wagtails ©MGillam 660

Above: Willy Wagtails by Iain Campbell, 2013, collection of Ted Egan and Nerys Evans.


At last week’s memorial celebration of the life of Iain Campbell (1938-2017), held at Witchetty’s, photographer and naturalist MIKE GILLAM was asked to speak about Iain’s life-long passion for birds – for early morning walks with binoculars, notebook and camera. Here are his reflections on this less well known aspect of the much-loved Alice Springs artist’s life.
I’m told Iain’s bird-observing habits can be traced back to his childhood in Scotland, in the wilds of Greenock on the Firth of Clyde. Here he made an important discovery, one that balanced his restless mind and spirit. In the calm light of morning, Iain found an incomparable solace in the company of birds.
p2427 Campbelle Self Portrait No 2 400It’s impossible to speak of Iain without referencing his art. Campbell’s paintings did most of the talking. His Self Portrait No 2 (at left and detail below right)  completed in 1977, not long after his arrival in Alice Springs, is a visceral masterpiece connecting the land of his birth with the desert landscapes of his future. Three mallards, flying in plaster icon formation, symbolise Iain’s flight from Scotland and his arrival, ultimately, in the red heart of Australia.
In 1999 Iain asked me to open his exhibition in Araluen’s Gallery 1. Campbell had recently emerged from a traumatic period as a single man, massively reflected in his body of paintings. In contrast, Iain had never felt better, he’d found Mandy Webb and was in great spirits! In one series, he’d painted the aftermath of an aviary fire. Decorative tree branches reduced to charcoal forms, trapped ring neck parrots perfect in death. Poignant and unforgettable. Iain asked simply that I keep my introduction brief and humorous. How on earth …
I felt trapped in a visual arts vice, somewhere between human vivisection and suburban horror! To be sure that exhibition was a precious gift for the town but humour it was not. My subsequent address included serious contextualising that bordered on trauma counselling, and the crowd seemed to gradually turn and embrace the emotional force of Campbell’s work.
Despite the pity he reserved for those conventional landscape artists who painted mainly gum trees, Iain knew all the significant woodland trees, mostly river red gums from Heavitree causeway south to John Blakeman bridge and west to the sewage ponds.
I stress significant trees, because Iain was preoccupied with the habitat. He knew every nesting hollow, popular roosting branch and favoured flyway through and above the Eucalypt canopies. He knew which years the galahs had reared more than one brood and when they’d usurped the ring neck parrots and vice versa. He knew the secrets of the pardalotes and when to expect the rainbow bee-eaters from the north. He noticed behaviours that are not recorded in books.
p2417 Campbell Self Portrait No 2 detail 300Each morning, on average, Iain recorded 35 bird species. His field notes, codified and indecipherable were transcribed by Iain and the resulting long hand was typed up by Mandy. Those observations were routinely passed to Birds Australia, an invaluable record at a time of significant change in the river corridor.
Campbell loved his own family deeply, unreservedly and he also revelled in the life of birds. I’m certain today’s speakers will emphasise Iain’s gentle and generous spirit and I have no doubt, this is a gift, in part, from the birds.
In 2014, I opened Campbell’s retrospective exhibition and ignored his pleas for brevity and humour. From those works, my wife and I agreed on a painting. Essentially Maria helped me choose between two. She claimed it would be far too difficult to live with Campbell’s asphyxiated ring-neck parrots. Frankly, the consensus painting is a work of great silence, melancholy and magic. Iain is sitting quietly in a bar, his figure merging with the background. Not quite alone. A bar-maid stands behind the counter, detached and flanked by a till, beer taps and schooner glasses. A scattering of brands and logos throughout. Reflected in the glass door of a beer fridge, Iain has hidden a tribute to Munch’s scream, a ghostly face, a stray highlight, drifting in front of the garish beer labels.
We never tire of its challenging perspectives and planes of light and we’re buoyed by its unintended message of survival and hope. When Iain joined Mandy on the banks of the Todd, he never looked back. In time he roamed beyond their bush garden and began his communion with the birds of the river. He painted prolifically in a light-filled studio, and with Mandy, he entertained all comers in a garden filled with bird song and his own witty vocalisations. Years later, the artistic fruits of his labour were exhibited here in Witchetty’s, a vibrant, joyful affair.
Standing in Witchetty’s today, the shaky circle seems complete. I wonder how Iain would portray this gathering, its tangled and tearful layers, of joyful remembrance and immense loss. I’m quite sure Iain’s final tableau vivant would have been joyful, brimming with memories of a life well lived. There would have been numerous sketches beforehand and quite a few painted over mistakes along the way. The astro-turf and plastic flowers at the cemetery, the exquisite array of brollies shading an idiosyncratic knot of mourners.
I sense that birds would have figured in such a grand work, a devoted pair of kingfishers at the very least. Can you hear that piping call? Perhaps he might have included the elusive ground cuckoo shrike, a single brush stroke, a blur of variegated grey, scattering the zebra finches feeding on the ground. There would be a male mistletoe bird of course, a drop of vermilion that Iain described as the purest red in his avian palette. Secreted in the leafy bough of a red gum, pardalotes, unafraid, return the artist’s appreciative gaze. Today I imagine, not a flight of mallards urging our friend onwards but an escort of ring-neck parrots in their stead.
Farewell, Iain Campbell for tributes by KIERAN FINNANE and many readers.


  1. Mike’s and Kieran’s reflections have each brought to life a little of Iain Campbell’s life journey and works. Thank you. I never met or knew Iain in person but his artworks I admired for their ironic reflection on this town within our country. I can see his passing leaves a space within and amongst friends and colleagues.

  2. Sad to here of Iain’s passing. A wonderful generous hearted character, a man for all seasons.
    I can still hear the beat of his drum at musical gatherings, especially the folk club in the late seventies. Rest in peace, Old Son.


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