Saturday, 14 May 2022

Britain is a country which once made and has now lost and says "Farewell" to its much loved Ornithologist and Prince among Bird Artists, Robert Gillmor

Robert, who has died at the age of 85, was a highly regarded by ornithologists throughout the world for his illustrations in numerous books, especially those on bird behaviour. He drew from life and his many hours of observation were reflected in the quality of his final prints, in which he captured the essence of the birds, using his brilliant draughtsmanship and beautiful compositions. From an early age, the Quaker blend of humility and a celebration of life, shone through all his work.

He was born 
was born into a Quaker household, three years before the outbreak of the Second World War, in the summer of 1936, in the village of Mortimer, near the town of Reading in Berkshire, the son of Mildred, who worked for her brother's antique coin dealership and Gerald, an accountant. He said : "I was interested in birds right from the start" and in this respect his Grandfather on his mother's side, who had been Professor of Fine Art at Reading University, was a big influence on the young Robert. 

Robert said : 
"My grandfather, Allen W. Seaby, painted the plates for Kirkman and Jourdain's 1935 book, 'British Birds'. Although he wasn't  simply a bird artist, they were a very fine set of plates and were quite influential in their time". Robert had a lot of time absent from school due to ill-health as a child and recalled : "I used to spend many hours in his studio watching him work. He had retired before I was born, but I was fortunate to be able to spend time with him and see him at work". Part of that work involved his Grandfather c
arefully printing his colour woodcuts.

As a boy, looking for bird identification, he said : "A book which meant something to me was 'Our Bird Book' by Sidney Rogerson, illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe. The plates by Tunnicliffe were wonderful and this book was fantastically expensive. It was two guineas - quiet beyond me in 1947. I was just  enthralled by the illustrations"Apparently, he looked through it in the flat of his aunt's best friend, but had to make do with his 'The Observer's Book of Birds'. 

However, he did finally get the Tunnicliffe and said : "
I must have pleaded with my parents, or an indulgent grandmother, more likely, and eventually got my hands on a copy". 
He also recalled : "Grandfather had prints of Bruno Liljefors’s work and a little book with black-and-white illustrations and I used to spend hours looking at that". 

As he approached adolescence he said, of his Grandfather : "In his old age he was very deaf and we used to go walking in the countryside round his house and I was his ears for bird songs and calls" and : "When I was ten or eleven he introduced me to, showed me how to do things like oil painting. Not that I ever did much oil painting, but I did my first one or two pictures with him. He was a very fine art teacher all his life". 
In fact, in his eighties in the 1950s, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald was commissioned to write some books on birds for the 'Ladybird Series' of children's books and his grandfather was asked to paint the pictures for these and they were some of the first bird paintings he had done for a long time. 

At the age of eleven, in 1947, he joined the privately educated Crosfields School for boys from Quaker families and two years later its senior school, Leighton Park School, in Reading.(link) Here he became an enthusiastic member of its active ornithological group and served first as secretary and then chairman, when he was in the sixth form. 

When he was fifteen he went with the group on a trip to 
Skokholm, an island off the coast of Pembrokeshire, where Peter Conder was the warden of the bird observatory. Robert recalled : "I did a lot of sketching, including of Puffins flying around the cliffs. I came back with my sketchbook and my Grandfather was having trouble with a painting of a Puffin in flight for the next Ladybird book. So with the aid of my sketchbook and his skills, we produced this painting of the Puffin in flight which was fine".

An ex-pupil, Duncan Wood, had helped Ronald Lockley when he was setting up the bird observatory on Skokholm and helped build bird traps, like the Heligoland so that they could be banded or otherwise studied by ornithologists. After leaving school he served in the Quaker funded, Friends’ Ambulance Unit in China before he returned to Leighton Park to teach and run the Bird Group which met on Friday nights.

Robert said : "He was an absolutely wonderful person to be taught by. A whole number of pupils went on to become quite significant ornithologists on the British scene". Robert enthused that, when Duncan took over the editorship of 'British Birds' : "This was incredible for us, as we were having regular Bird Group meetings and ringing, and going off on expeditions with someone who at the time was right at the centre of ornithology. We had a complete set of 'British Birds' in the school library, right back to Volume 1, and used to spend a lot of time looking at those". 

Another budding ornithologist, James Cadbury, who went on to work for the RSPB from 1969–2000, first as Head of Research and then as Senior Ecologist, was at the school at the same time as Robert. Humphrey Dobinson, who was two years younger than Robert, was in a group from the school which was largely responsible for setting up the bird observatory at Cape Clear in Southern Ireland. He went on the publish 'Bird Count : A practical guide to bird surveys' in 1977.

At the age of eleven in 1947, Robert joined the newly formed national 'Wild Life Trust' and, with his friend and fellow member, Nick Blurton-Jones, they journeyed to the wild life centre in Slimbridge and : "Stayed for a week in the winter holidays on a narrowboat on the canal. The first time we turned up, they were expecting two large ornithologists from Reading and two schoolboys in shorts arrived, They were a bit amazed". Robert recalled they studied : "Triumph behaviour in geese where the male impresses the female by attacking another male and then making a lot of noise about it".

Outside school, the Reading Ornithological Club had started in 1947 and Robert said : "I was taken to ROC meetings when I was about twelve. I was far too young to be a full member, but in the minutes of the meeting in January 1948 there is a note that says that : 'Robert Gillmor, on account of his extreme youth, be encouraged to come along as a visitor'. He said : "I particularly remember a talk by James Fisher", the broadcaster, naturalist and ornithologist, "Where I asked the great man to autograph a paperback copy of one of his books". Then : "At the ripe old age of thirteen I was elected as the Club’s first junior member and within ten years I was Honorary Secretary". 

By the time he was thirteen, he had been discovering linocuts at school and one of these was used for the cover of the first real report of the ROC for 1949, which was something he continued to do from that point on. In addition, he got a second commission when he illustrated a paper on Magpie behaviour for Derek Goodwin in 'British Birds'. Then he found that : "The RSPB might, like the British Trust for Ornithology, want a little bit of illustrating and so they’d ask me. I’d do it at once and send it off. So I started doing drawings for the RSPB, line drawings, of this and that, very early on".

Robert must have been justifiably proud when, at the age of sixteen, he showed his Grandfather his first published illustration in 'British Birds' in 1952, which was a plate of shearwaters for a paper by Max Nicholson on these birds in the English Channel.(link) He said : "Max wanted a drawing and I did a couple of versions of it and got it right and it was published. That, of course, was an enormous fillip to me". 

At the age of eighteen, he had left school, became a member of the British Ornithologists' Union and was ready to take his place as university undergraduate and recalled : "But before going to university I went on a two-man expedition to central Iceland on a travel scholarship for two months, following in the footsteps of Scott and Fisher and then came straight back to the Reading University Fine Art Department, where I was for five years". 

He went back to Iceland in 1956, to watch the geese coming through northern Iceland from Greenland and said : "I can remember lying down and watching pink-footed geese in Iceland through my long brass telescope and drawing them". 

Then in 1957, he helped form the university 'Exploration Society' and mounted a major four-man expedition to Spitzbergen, during which he made a 16mm film and took photographs. Now, at twenty-one, he said : "After that I started to do lectures all over the country. I was, by then, practically running the ROC and doing a lot of work with the BTO and the RSPB. I also illustrated my first book – David Snow’s 'A Study of Blackbirds' "
Having finished his four year 'National Diploma in Design' course followed by his teaching diploma at Reading University, at the age of twenty-three in 1959, he returned to Leighton Park School to teach and take over the Bird Club and said :  "I had a large new art studio, a big woodwork shop, a big metalwork shop, a pottery, and book-binding and printing departments. All these were run by individuals who came in from outside as part-time staff, and I was in charge of all this, which was pretty incredible, but I sort of coped". 

In 1960, at the age of twenty-four he organised and Reading Museum hosted an ‘Exhibition by Contemporary Bird Painters’. He recalled : "I was absolutely enthusiastic about bird art and its history and rather frustrated that it was extremely difficult to see original work by bird artists other than the odd card or book illustrations. The artists were scattered around the country and never got together and I thought, ‘Why can’t we join up and have an exhibition?’ " (link)With the encouragement of Max Nicholson, he contacted other artists and  possible contributors. He'd got to know Peter Scott, the revered ornithologist and painter through the Wild Life Trust and he agreed to provide some exhibits.

Robert recalled that : "The Exhibition was opened by Lord Alanbrooke who, of course, was a great naturalist as well as being a war hero. We had this wonderful opening afternoon in Reading and it was a jolly good exhibition and was taken on tour for a year by the Art Exhibitions Bureau of the Federation of British Artists (FBA). It was highly successful, so they extended it for another year". 

Fired by its success, Robert now teamed up with Eric Ennion, who, like Robert, had been fascinated by birds and with drawing them at an early age. Now aged sixty, he had held his first London one-man show of his pictures at the Greatorex Galleries in 1937 and in 1945, sold his medical practice to earn his living as a freelance artist, writer and broadcaster. Together, they now formed the 'Society of Wildlife Artists' and held its inaugural exhibition in London which was opened by James Fisher in 1964. Robert went on to serve as its President and saw it become a registered charity in 1990 with the purpose of : encouraging all form of visual art based on or representing the world's wildlife. He was the driving force behind the Society for over fifty years and dispensed advice and encouragement to up-and-coming wildlife artists who he inspired to forge their own careers in the field.

Robert said, at the age of twenty-eight in 1964 : "I was teaching I was also doing my own work because I thought it was good for the boys to see that I was a serious artist as well as trying to teach them. I was also doing an increasing amount of outside work, illustrating for the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology, book illustrating and all sorts of things. It came to the point where I had to decide which way it was going to go. I was either going to stay in teaching or stop and become a freelance". At the time he was still living at home with his parents and worked in a studio shed in the garden. With the agreement of the Headmaster he worked part-time at the school for another year and retired from teaching the following year.

In the 1960s he said : "I did do quite a bit of travel in my early days, to the Arctic, USA and East Africa. I loved the Arctic each time I went. The Antarctic would be rather fine – all those penguins. I illustrated two books on penguins and I had to make do with those I could find in this country to sketch. It’s surprising how many penguins there are in captivity, what with Bourton-on-the-Water and London Zoo". One of the books, published in 1969, was written by John Sparks and Tony Soper and the following year Robert received the great accolade of receiving the commission from the RSPB to design their new logo with an avocet. One of the reasons why this bird was so close to his heart as a print maker, was that its black and white colours meant it could be easily reproduced when colour printing was both expensive and impractical.

Robert said : "I’d stopped active print-making in the mid-1970s because when I got married in 1974 and we had a family, I had to make a living and print-making was a bit of a luxury. I had to spend all my time doing 
commercial work – at those times it was quite tight".

By the mid 1980s his situation had improved and in 1985 he took over as the cover artist for Collins 'New Naturalist Library' which was conceived during the Second World War to be a definitive record of British natural history. His first cover was for 'British Warblers' by Eric Simms and he went on to produce another seventy, spanning 35 years. Robert said he loved doing the series because : "I have to make myself an instant expert on subjects about which I know absolutely nothing".

In 1998, when he was sixty-two and his two children had left home, he moved, with his wife Susan, to Cley in Norfolk, a county with wide open skies, marshes and, of course, a plenitude of birds. While continuing to work on
'New Naturalist Library' he said : "Whenever an opportunity arises I sneak in a familiar local image such as the tower of Langham Church or the cliffs at Hunstanton. The peregrine falcon for the cover of the volume on 'Falcons' was based on a quick sketch made in a Cley hide when a peregrine flew in with a dead duck which it proceeded to pluck and eat. This absorbing episode lasted 20 minutes and is typical of the unexpected event that can so often enliven an otherwise quiet period of watching and waiting". 

At Cley he also returned to his first love and said : "I hadn’t used the press for years. It was built in 1860. I determined that I was going to start print-making again". (link) He went on : "I pretty much stuck to my determination not to illustrate books, but I was asked by two friends to whom I could not say "No". I illustrated Mike Shrubb’s book, 'The Lapwing' and Duncan Wood wrote a biography of H.G. Alexander, which I illustrated with black-and-white drawings along with Ian Wallace". Robert himself had, in fact, illustrated a book for H.G. Alexander in 1974.

In the next twenty years, his work could be seen on display at the nearby Pinkfoot (link) and Birdscape Galleries (link) and he might be spotted with sketch book in the hides at Cley Marshes. These years were highly productive for Robert, in terms of paintings, prints, drawings and of course, his beloved linocuts. When asked what was it about linocuts which appealed to him so much ? He said : "What I like is that it makes me simplify so much and to see the essence of whatever it is I am doing. I just want to get down to the absolute basics of the bird, which is why I like birds with simple, bold plumage patterns. As a medium for something like a book jacket, it is the bold clarity of the design which is good, so that a book jacket can hold its own against the myriad other books on the bookshelves". 

Robert said : "I like taking a group of Avocets or Oystercatchers and arranging them to create their own particular pattern or design. I’m not trying to do a field guide illustration at all – it’s something much simpler and bolder"

He said that painting never satisfied him in the same way as a bold three-colour print and :"I rather enjoy the technical side of linocutting, particularly playing around with the colours. You see, if you use three colours, and you print one colour on top of another to make an extra colour, there are all sorts of things you can do. If you count the paper as a colour and have three coloured inks to play with, A,B and C, then A+B, A+C and B+C and A+B=C and the paper adds up to eight colours. And that’s rather fun. And I think it’s just more me, frankly".

Robert said : "Between 2010 and 2011, I was doing designs for postage stamps for the Royal Mail" and : "They gave me the list of birds, and the first couple of sets of stamps were based on the commonest species in the RSPB Big Garden"

Of the productive process he said : "I would sit down with a pad of blank paper and start doodling. They only wanted one individual bird per stamp. So, I would draw a Blue Tit and put a nice big oak leaf near it and send off the drawing. I had very little trouble with them at all. It was all quite straightforward". "I knew that the bird had to take up quite a lot of the space and I had to think of it ‘stamp-sized’ as well as the size I was going to paint it, which was about A4. I’d want to show off   the characteristics of the bird, and it would need to be quite bold because it was going to be reduced so much".

He recalled : In the second series of six stamps, they wanted a Magpie and I said : "You can’t have one Magpie, "one for sorrow" and so they said :
"All right. Paint two". The Magpies are so boldly marked birds it wasn’t too difficult to make two birds stand out". 

When he assessed his productivity in 2010 he said : "I had done twenty-four stamps, five book jackets and a few other things which added up to thirty-two pieces of work, which is over one a fortnight. Eleven days for a piece of artwork doesn’t leave you much time for anything else".

As he got older he said : "What really appeals to me, and it’s very much to do with my approach to art these days, is birds with bold, simple plumage patterns. Particularly long-legged wading types like avocets, herons and oystercatchers, because they are so suited to what I am really interested in as far as picture-making goes". When Robert was seventy-four he said : "I went to Titchwell in 2010, the year before the RSPB centenary, because I was commissioned to do a painting of an Avocet family for one of the groups who wanted to produce a print to sell for fundraising. I would be out in the Parrinder Hide by about eight o’clock and spent a week drawing and sketching"
Of avocets, he said : "They just give me a great deal of artistic pleasure and, of course, they are the ones that I largely represent in my print-making. Fussy little speckly brown jobs that live in the middle of bushes are useless".

When Mark Avery asked Robert : "How many individual pieces of bird art have you produced?" as part of his interview for inclusion for his 2015 publication, 'Behind to the Binoculars'. Robert replied : "I haven’t the faintest idea! There would be several thousand drawings altogether and then all the paintings. All the calendars – I did calendars for over thirty years and latterly there were two calendars a year, needing twenty-four paintings, so those add up". In recognition of his work. in 2020 Robert received the 'SWLA Outstanding Contribution to Art & Nature Award'.(link)

When ill health now forced Robert to spend seven months in hospital he lostthe use of his legs, but when he came out, with the encouragement of his daughter Emily, he resumed his work using silk screen prints. (link) 

In 2021 after 35 years of producing seventy-one stunning covers for 'New Naturalist Library', ill health forced Robert  to relinquish his commission and he created his last, titled :  'Ecology and Natural History' by David M Wilkinson.(link)

Against the background of technological advances in photography Robert had said : "I am absolutely staggered by the quality of the images – it’s just fantastic. What I find fascinating in the whole area of bird photography and bird art is that I think that now photography has liberated the artists to be more artistic and to go into areas where photography can’t go. It gives the bird artist the chance to be much more original, imaginative and impressionistic, and to produce pictures with feeling and interest".

What Robert concluded, he amply illustrated in a career which spanned seventy years : 

"There will always be a place for the bird illustrator because it’s very difficult to find a single photograph that can do the job that a bird illustrator can do for a species. A photograph records one individual at one moment of time".

* * * * * * * * * 

In grateful acknowledgement to the interview with Robert recorded in Mark Avery and Keith Betton's book : 'Behind the Bonoculars', published with two Gillmor turnstones gracing its cover.

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