The 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Gibbings, artist, book designer and writer, falls on January 19th. He is best known for his "river" books – including Sweet Thames Flow Softly (1940), and Lovely is the Lee (1945). His easy-going, anecdotal writing style, his enthusiasm for the natural world, and the exquisite woodcuts created an unexpected commercial success.
Published at a time of war and rationing, his descriptions of messing about in small wooden boats on quiet backwaters, observing the wildlife and chatting to local characters reminded harassed wartime readers of a lost world of simple pleasures.
In my childhood in Cork of the 1950s, the one book you’d be sure to find in a middle-class home was a Robert Gibbings.
Their success, and his benign presence and natural eloquence led to him becoming a popular radio broadcaster and TV presenter in the early days of television; David Attenborough cites him as an inspiration. But the river books were only one phase in a life lived to the full.
Gibbings was born in Kinsale in 1889, though he is seldom associated with the town when writers are mentioned. His family came over to Ireland in Elizabethan times, and his father was the rector of St Multose Church. It was in Kinsale harbour that Gibbings first discovered the joy of small boats. When his father was promoted to Carrigrohane, a bigger parish on the river Lee, the boating – and the sketching, which had been his hobby since childhood – continued.
At the insistence of his parents, Gibbings studied medicine at UCC, although his ambition was to be an artist.
While he enjoyed the scientific side of his studies, it soon became apparent that this big, soft-hearted man was unable to cope with the human suffering of his patients. His parents were apprehensive about his decision to be an artist, fearing, quite rightly, that it meant he would lead an unconventional life, looking at naked women, dressing untidily and consorting with social misfits.
From 1911 he studied life drawing at the Slade in London. His contemporaries included Eric Gill, John Nash, David Jones and Mabel Annesley. He was advised to take wood-engraving classes; the technique perfectly suited his strong line and close observation of nature, which in this phase was lightly stylised in the wake of art nouveau.
In 1914 he volunteered with the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was wounded at Gallipoli, and invalided out of the army in 1918.
He quickly established himself in London as a leading artist in advertising and book illustration. He was a colourful character, large, tall, and full-bearded, but gentle and good-natured too, fond of wearing a wide-brimmed hat, baggy trousers and hardly ever a tie.
He married Moira Pennefeather from Tipperary, whose parents had the same attitude as his to the artistic profession.
Shortly after his marriage, the chance to buy the Golden Cockerel Press, one of several small hand presses producing unusually fine books, came up, and he took it, seeing a way of making a steady living to support his wife and growing family. They moved to the house near Reading where the press was based, and worked together in the business.
He published some 70 titles, beautifully designed, bound in leather and containing works by some of the best artists of the time, including Eric Gill, whose wife and family became close friends. Gill, who is as much known these days for his unconventional sex life as for his sublime lettering and typefaces, encouraged the Gibbings in their fondness for nudism, and boasts that he even managed a “cuddle” with Moira.
As his ever-tactful biographer, Martin Andrews, puts it, “Gibbings never settled into family life, and this became an issue for Moira as time passed”.
That marriage ended in divorce, and his second also failed, but eventually he settled happily with his sister-in-law, Patience Empson, over 20 years his junior, who became secretary and invaluable aide to Gibbings until his death.
People often forget that Gibbings was Irish. Brian Lalor, author of Ink-stained Hands, the definitive history of Irish print-making, was challenged by an English academic at a conference in Dublin in 2007, who refused to believe that Gibbings was Irish, as he had produced archetypal English landscapes.
But his account of Gougane Barra, for example, confirms how deeply steeped in Irish myth and folklore Gibbings was.
In 1948 he had invitations to Nova Scotia, or to Mexico to research his next book, but he wrote to his publisher: “It really does seem best that I should go back to Ireland where I belong, and do my next book there.”
That book, Sweet Cork of Thee, is certainly the best loved of all, at least in this part of the world.