Category: Artist and sculptor
Robert Gibbings (23 March 1889 – 19 January 1958) was an Irish artist and author who was most noted for his work as a wood engraver and sculptor, and for his books on travel and natural history.
Along with Noel Rooke he was one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920, and was a major influence in the revival of wood engraving in the twentieth century. He also lectured in typography, book production and illustration at Reading University. He was said to be ‘a very good teacher’, and encouraged his students by producing a number of books illustrated with their wood engravings.
The bearded figure of Gibbings became as familiar on British television as was his voice to radio listeners. David Attenborough remembers Gibbings as being one of the inspiring influences at the start of his career.
Gibbings did a great deal to raise the profile of wood engraving through his own printing company – the Golden Cockerel Press.
He acquired the press almost by accident [or fate]. He was working on the wood engravings The Lives of Gallant Ladies when Hal Taylor, the owner of the press for whom he was working, became very ill with tuberculosis and had to put it up for sale.
Gibbings sought a loan from a friend, Hubert Pike, a director of Bentley Motors, to buy the press. He took over in February 1924, paying £850 for the huts housing the business, the plant and goodwill. He also leased the house and land for £40 per annum. Gallant Ladies sold well with receipts of over £1,800, and saw the start of a golden period for the press.
He inherited a skilled printing staff, capable of very fine work in Frank Young, Albert Cooper and Harry Gibbs. His then wife, Moira Gibbings, helped her husband in the business, and Gibbings kept close links with A.E. Coppard, who had helped Taylor with the business side of the press and who was to become a close friend. Gibbings also knew all the leading wood engravers of the day and a number of authors, which enabled him to marry artists with authors. In due course, he commissioned engravings from John Nash, Noel Rooke, David Jones, John Farleigh and Mabel Annesley among others. Gibbings published some 71 titles at the press and printed a number of books for others.
Gibbings also appeared to have an uncanny ‘feel’ for what would be successful and what not.
The four volume Canterbury Tales (1929 to 1931) was illustrated by Eric Gill. Gibbings printed 15 copies of the Canterbury Tales on vellum. Printing the Canterbury Tales dominated work at the press for two and a half years, and relatively few other books were printed during that period. However, the gamble paid off, the book was a considerable critical and financial success and grossed £14,000.
Gibbings produced a number of books with his own wood engravings at the press, the highpoints being The True History of Lucian (1927) and Lamia by John Keats (1928).
In the early 1930s the business climate changed, and, as American sales faltered, Gibbings struggled on as the depression became more severe. The press was now moribund and Gibbings eventually sold up in 1933. The last book that he produced was Lord Adrian by Lord Dunsany (1933), illustrated with his own wood engravings.
So, from where did he get his inspiration?
Gibbings was born in Cork into a middle-class family. His father, the Reverend Edward Gibbings, was a Church of Ireland minister. His mother, Caroline, was the daughter of Robert Day, Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and president of The Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. He grew up in the town of Kinsale where his father was the rector of St. Multose Church.
He studied medicine for three years at University College Cork before deciding to persuade his parents to allow him to take up art. He studied under the painter Harry Scully in Cork and later at the Slade School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design.
During the First World War he served in the Royal Munster Fusiliers and was wounded at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, was invalided out and resumed his studies in London.
In 1919 he married Moira Pennefather, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Edward Graham Pennefather from Tipperary, with whom he had four children, Patrick (1920), Brigid (1923) and Lawrence and Finnbar (1927).
Gibbings and Moira indulged in a 'rather unconventional and hedonistic lifestyle' (neither had any inhibitions about nudity), and saw a good deal of Gill, which whom they had a ' very easy-going relationship'. Gibbings never settled into family life, and this became an issue for Moira as time passed. He also had two extended trips abroad enjoying himself in Tahiti and a cruise liner on commissions, without Moira.
Moira was less than delighted that Gibbings had twice left her in charge of the business and their family on her own and with very little consultation. Lawrence had tuberculosis and she decided to leave for South Africa to join her mother, taking the three youngest children. She returned in 1936 to finalise her divorce from Gibbings.
Gibbings had lost his livelihood and his family, though not his home. He did not sell the grounds and buildings of the press, as the new owners moved the press to London. To save money he moved out of the cottage into one of the huts in the grounds, and his son Patrick, stayed in another one when he was at home at the weekend.
He did not seem deeply distressed about the loss of his family, although he did build up a close relationship with Patrick. The money from the sale of the press was enough to clear his debts, and a cloud seemed to lift. He wrote:
But what peace of mind when, standing in the wooden hut to which I had moved, I could look about me and see not one thing that was worth five shillings to anyone else!
Despite his new simpler life style, Gibbings was very happy to receive visitors. One of these was Elisabeth Empson. Early in 1934 she discovered that she was pregnant. “This came as something of a shock to her parents”. I think to put this in perspective for those of a younger generation, a girl at my school in the 1960s was expelled for becoming pregnant and ‘bringing disgrace to the school and its values’.
There was a twenty year age difference between her and Gibbings, and he was unable to marry her as he was still married to Moira. The couple moved down to Cornwall, where their daughter Vahine was born in November 1934 – they had two more children, another daughter Tiare (1937) and Shaun (1946). Elisabeth's parents came to accept the relationship, and gave the couple the money to build a cottage in the grounds at Waltham Saint Lawrence in 1935.
Elisabeth and Gibbings were married in 1937 after Moira finally agreed to a divorce. The relationship was always strained, for much the same reasons that Gibbings's relationship with Moira was strained. He went off, for example, on two trips to Bermuda and the Red Sea, leaving Elisabeth with two young children to look after.
Gibbings's private life retained the turbulent nature that it had always had. Elisabeth came back to Waltham Saint Lawrence with the two girls in summer 1945, keen to have another child. Gibbings left for the South Seas after a very few weeks, leaving Elisabeth, who was by now pregnant, with their children. Their third child, Shaun, was born in April 1946. Gibbings's life at the time was complicated by his relationship with Patience Empson, Elisabeth's sister. The relationship had developed to the extent that she flew out to join him in Fiji in May 1946. ‘She went mostly to help him with his writing’.
By April 1951 Elisabeth and Gibbings were divorced, and his relationship with Patience became ‘more relaxed’.
In September 1955 Patience and Gibbings bought Footbridge Cottage, a tiny beehive of a cottage in Gibbings's words, in Long Wittenham on the banks of the Thames.
Life there suited Gibbings, and he had a period of tranquility that he had not known previously.
They lived there until Gibbings died of cancer in hospital at Oxford on 19 January 1958, aged 68.
Although Robert's woodcuts were used to illustrate various novels and other publications, I decided to combine his woodcuts with some poems from poets for whom I have no biography, but whose poems are in tune with the site. There is also a quote from him, from one of his travel books.
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- Gibbings, Robert & Jonson, Ben - The noble nature #013232
- Gibbings, Robert & Kendon, Frank - The flower #013227
- Gibbings, Robert & Markova, Dawna - I will not die an unlived life #013226
- Gibbings, Robert - 'Thoughts on Wood' in The Saturday Book #013225
- Gibbings, Robert - A Book of Uncommon Prayer #013221
- Gibbings, Robert - Advertisements for the Orient Line #013220
- Gibbings, Robert - Beasts and Saints, and the Glory of Life #013223
- Gibbings, Robert - Coming down the Seine #013217
- Gibbings, Robert - Dublin under Snow 1918 #013233
- Gibbings, Robert - Sweet Thames run Softly #013224
- Gibbings, Robert - Tahiti and Iorana #013219
- Gibbings, Robert - War years WWI #013222
- Gibbings, Robert - Wisley #013218