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10 January 2024

Caroline Campbell Q&A: “I’d love to be able to teleport safely”

The director of the National Gallery of Ireland on her love of the Florentine Renaissance and the contemplation of beautiful things.

By New Statesman

Caroline Campbell was born in Belfast in 1973. A curator, she has worked at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the National Gallery in London, and is now director of the National Gallery of Ireland.

What’s your earliest memory?

Standing by the window in an upstairs room in the early summer evening in Lisburn, County Antrim. I was meant to be in bed but I was entranced by the light.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Lucy Pevensie, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I still admire her because she has an instinctive sense of good and evil. One adult hero is the Ukrainian-French mid-century novelist Irène Némirovsky. I am filled with awe for how she kept working while moving from shelter to shelter in occupied France. And that during this appalling time she not only cared for her young family but produced some of her most lasting work.

[See also: Benjamin Zephaniah: “My first racist attack was a brick in the back of the head”]

What book last changed your thinking?

Wifedom by Anna Funder, about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife. Orwell’s work made a deep impression on me in my teens and twenties. This book made me like him less. It also crystallised my thinking that no one really writes or creates alone (although they may think they do).

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Which political figure do you look up to?

The Ulster civil rights campaigner and politician John Hume. Someone with great integrity who knew when to argue, when to be forceful, and when to compromise.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Florentine Renaissance painting made for the domestic environment. This is one of the first genres of non-religious paintings in the West, known as cassoni or spalliere.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Heian Japan in the 11th century. But I’d make a caveat. If I lived there, I’d ask to be male, from a noble family, and above the Sixth Rank in the court hierarchy. Then I could devote myself to the contemplation of beautiful things, write poetry, enjoy my garden and a lively social life, safe in the knowledge that this was contributing to my progress towards eternal peace. Life wasn’t so blessed if you were a woman, or of lower status.

What TV show could you not live without?

The show I’d miss most is Newsnight. What I couldn’t live without is BBC Radio 4.

Who would paint your portrait?

Titian. He could be a flatterer but he painted those he knew well perceptively.

What’s your theme tune?

The first movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. I love how the music moves and shimmers, conveying the sensation of a silvery fish leaping through water. It’s got such vim, and makes me feel very happy.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t try to do too much at once.

What’s currently bugging you?

How to move house and declutter, but not dispose of things we will miss later.

What single thing would make your life better?

To teleport safely and sustainably.

When were you happiest?

The past 20 years, since I met the man who is now my husband, on Valentine’s Day 2003, and had our children, have been the happiest and most fulfilled of my life so far.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A cook (as long as taste, not timings, mattered) or a doctor. 

Are we all doomed?

Only if we give up and lose all hope.

“The Power of Art” by Caroline Campbell is published by the Bridge Street Press

[See also: Judi Dench’s Q&A: “Shakespeare’s rhythms are the beating of my heart”]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously