Hugh H. Campbell (1905-1997)
Born December 4, 1905 in Atchison, Kansas. He moved to the Camden, New Jersey area when he was 10 years old. Hugh Campbell left a nine-to-five job in 1930’s to pursue an artist’s life. He jumped into his new life with nothing but determination and a “feeling” that he could paint. He had no formal training. Training himself was his first priority, which he did by drawing over 1,000,000 free-hand circles and then over 130,000 action sketches of people on the streets. But it was the fields around his boyhood fishing spots in Mount Holly where he felt the most at home.
He commuted from Camden to Mount Holly regularly as he discovered that those fields and streets were the subject matter that he wanted to paint. He had no money and no place to stay so he would pitch a tent in a field and stay overnight. At one point the owner of Hack’s Canoe Retreat told him that he didn’t have to pitch a tent, he could come as often as he liked and stay as long as he liked in an unheated canoe barn at no charge. He thought Hugh was going to stay a week or two, but he ended up staying seven years. In the 1940s Hugh Campbell bought an old tar paper bicycle repair shop building for $150 and moved in onto Kates Tract the woods on the banks of the Rancocas.
Hugh Campbell had a quiet, austere lifestyle. Each night, winter and summer, he would go to Milldam Park and meditate. Each day, carrying his heavy painting gear, he would roam the fields, valleys and woods up and down the Rancocas Creek and look for inspiration. Then, after painting, he would record in his voluminous diaries the goings-on all around him. Every Sunday he would display his paintings along the concrete wall on High Street for even then unheard of prices of 20 or 30 dollars. He earned, on average, an income of about $2.00 to $5.00 a week from the sale of his paintings. As he refined his technique he became a regular at the Rittenhouse Square Annual Clothesline Exhibit in Philadelphia.
In the late 1930s he became a vegetarian and began a Yoga discipline. He read extensively on the subject, teaching himself Hatha Yoga and practicing it daily much in the same way that he taught himself to draw and paint. In 1942 he met a teacher from India, Swami Yatiswarananda, who taught him about Vedanta, one of the world's most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions. Hugh Campbell studied with until Yatiswarananda’s return to India in 1948. He corresponded with his teacher for many years afterwards and continued with his Yoga practice.
In 1962 he published a book called Knock Vigorously to Be Heard. The title was taken from the notice on his cabin door. It is filled with hometown humor, depression memories and spiritual observations, giving us revealing glimpses of an unusual man living in a small country town. His paintings and writings are a moving history of Mount Holly at mid century.
Campbell stayed in the shack on Kates Tract until the mid-1980s when he was overcome by fumes from a faulty kerosene heater. After a stay in the hospital, he became a ward of the state and spent his last years in a nursing home.
Exhibitions and Honors:
1938 - Swarthmore College – 70 paintings of Burlington County, 30 paintings of Maine.
1940 – Burlington County Hospital, Mount Holly, NJ. 4 paintings hung in the solariums of the south wing of the hospital.
1963 - Angus-Sloane Building, Pleasant Valley Avenue, Moorestown, NJ.
1953 – awarded honorary membership in the Art League of Philadelphia in recognition of art work done with outstanding distinction.
Gilson, Marion. “Artist Sketches and Lives in Barn: Mt. Holly Man with Seven Cents in Pocket Has No Worry”. The Courier Post [Trenton] 5 October 1935. 7.
Cassidy, Morley. “$3 A Week for Art Beats His Old $100: Painter Gave Up Good Job But is Happy Living in Heatless Boat Barn”. The Evening Bulletin [Philadelphia] 27 May 1940.
Van Duzer, Winifred. “Regeneration on the Rancocas”. The Philadelphia Inquirer 22 August 1948. Parade 5+.
Loane, Paul. “The Fortunes of One Man’s $2 Lifestyle”. Courier Post [Camden] 26 May 1973. M2-4.
Hunyadi, Jim. “A Life of Quiet Contemplation”. Trenton Times 9 March 1980. G1+.
(1947, August).“Clothesline Exhibit in Rittenhouse Square”. Philadelphia, 34, 16-17.
Campbell, Hugh H. Knock Vigorously To Be Heard: Reflections of a Yoga Trained Artist. New York: Philosophical Library, 1966.
Gesensway, Eleanor. Life Along the North Branch of the Rancocas Creek between Mount Holly and Smithville, New Jersey: An Oral History Project. Mount Holly: Burlington County Cultural & Heritage Office, 1992.
Compiled and submitted by Lynn Lemyre, Visual Arts Coordinator, Burlington County Division of Cultural Affairs & Tourism.