Robert Gibbings, An Irish Artist UnderwaterBy Cormac F. Lowth First published in SUBSEA, the quarterly journal of the Irish Underwater Council, Autumn 2007.
Nowadays we tend to take the imagery produced underwater, mostly by digital photography, very much for granted. The advances in technology and the availability of relatively cheap cameras and waterproof housings have brought the means to all who venture beneath the waves to record the stunning sights to be seen there. It is all the more unusual and seemingly incredible therefore to note that many years before the advent of Scuba equipment, an Irish artist, Robert Gibbings, dived in many parts of the world, using crude helmet equipment, and actually drew and painted pictures while underwater. Long before Nemo got lost and found his way onto the big screen, Robert identified and drew the special symbiotic relationship that exists between the Clownfish and the Snakelocks Anenome.
Robert Gibbings was born in County Cork on March 23rd 1889. He was son of the Reverend Edward Gibbings, a Church of Ireland minister, and Caroline Day, a daughter of a well-known Cork Businessman. He grew up in the town of Kinsale where his father was the rector of St. Multose church and he developed a love of the wonders of nature and wildlife on the beautiful banks of the Bandon River. His love for boats and the sea was gained at an early age. He was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather, Robert Day, who was an antiquarian and founder of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society and who was a passionate collector. His home, Myrtle Hill House, was a treasury of art and rare, interesting objects.
Robert was an artist in several disciplines and his works include paintings in oils and watercolours and many pieces of sculpture in stone. His works underwater were but a small part of his many-faceted life and he is best remembered for his huge output of magnificent woodcut illustrations. He was a big man and in many ways he was a larger than life character. He was a prolific author and many of his books give a fascinating insight into his travels in many parts of the globe. He was a great raconteur and a striking figure with a mop of blonde hair and a large bushy beard and his appearances on early British television and on B.B.C. Radio, where he presented programmes on travel and wildlife, foreshadowed the likes of David Bellamy, and David Attenborough, who once stated that Robert was one of the great influences on his life
From early childhood Robert wished to pursue art as a career. This however was not in keeping with his parents’ wishes and it was decided that he should become a doctor. He began his medical studies in Cork University in 1907, the year his mother died, but by his own admission he did not have the temperament for such academic study and much of his time was spent tramping about the hills and bogs with the local youths, hunting, poaching, fishing and exploring the flora and fauna of the countryside. By 1910, his father had finally to admit that the medical life was not for Robert as he had failed almost all of his exams. Robert managed to get his father to agree, reluctantly, to finance his art studies and he enrolled, first with painter Harry Scully in Cork and later in the Slade School of Art in London where he studied for several years. It was here that he became proficient in the art of woodcuts. By 1914 Robert was back in his native Cork and was beginning to receive commissions for works of art, however when war was declared on August 4 th 1914, Robert cycled to the depot of the fourth Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers in Fort Charles, Kinsale, where he enlisted as a second Lieutenant. By May 1915 he and his fellow Munster Fusiliers found themselves on the beaches of Gallipoli in the disastrous Allied campaign to gain control of the Dardenelles. He was now in command of a company, which was decimated, initially by the heavy fire from the entrenched Turkish positions and later from both enemy fire and sickness when the campaign degenerated into static trench warfare. Robert later wrote about some of the terrible sights he had witnessed but also of the great bravery shown by his fellow Irish soldiers. During an attempt to move forward, Robert was hit in the neck and shoulder by shrapnel and he was evacuated, first to Greece and Egypt and later, home to Cork where he finished out the war on light duties on Bere Island with the rank of Captain. Incredibly, he managed to compile a portfolio of drawings and paintings throughout all of this period, many of which depicted the horrors of the war
After the war Robert married Moira Pennefather in Weymouth. Her family were from Tipperary. They moved to England and over the next few years, Robert established himself as one of the foremost book illustrators with his beautiful woodcuts. He produced works for virtually all of the major British publishing houses. Robert illustrated several books for the Golden Cockerel Press and he became good friends with the publisher who offered to sell him the business. A friend of Robert’s proposed to lend him the money to make the purchase, an offer he could not refuse. The business came with a cottage named ‘Four Elms’ and the printing press and studios in the village of Waltham Saint Lawerence in the Thames Valley. Robert an his wife set up home here with their two children and over the next years produced some magnificently illustrated, hand-made books that are much sought-after collectors items in the present day. They became leading lights among many of the artistic and literary circles and were noted for their hospitality. In 1919, Robert founded the Society of Wood engravers.
In 1929, with the book business running well and after an abundance of artistic production that included some superb sculptures in stone, Robert was afflicted by wanderlust and he began a series of travels about the globe, which were to result in him being away from home for long periods, given that air travel was in its infancy and the vast majority of passengers still travelled by ship. This period saw the publication of the first books by Robert in a long line of travel related works. In 1929 he travelled to the Pacific and visited the islands of Tahiti and Tonga. Several books emerged from this in which there are a wealth of stories, observations and illustrations of all that he encountered. He became fascinated with marine life and he drew and painted a great many specimens that were brought by fishermen. In 1932 he took off again on a cruise around the west Indies, apparently paying for the voyage with some engravings of posters for the shipping company.
The fortunes of the Golden Cockerel Press began to go somewhat into decline at this time, partly due to Roberts spendthrift nature and partly because of the Wall Street crash, which saw a rapid decline in book sales in America. Moira now left Waltham and moved to South Africa, taking with her three of their four children. Robert sold his interest in the Press and for a time underwent some hardships, which seemed to have been relative as his son Patrick who remained with him later remarked that they still managed most weeks to get a hamper from Fortnums! Robert also found time to indulge in another of his pleasures, that of naturism, and he wrote illustrated articles for the ‘Sunbather’. He had an ongoing argument with George Bernard Shaw, another naturist, as to whether or not fig leafs should be worn. Robert’ fortunes were again revived when he was given a teaching post at Reading University, beginning an association that he was to retain for the remainder of his life. Roberts interest in marine life had been stimulated greatly by his visits to the Pacific Islands and he spent many hours in the British Museum studying specimens. He wrote:
Of Course, I knew absolutely nothing about these fish except that they were beautiful. They appeared more Gorgeous than anything I had ever seen in my life, their shapes, their markings and their colours seeming to vie with each other as to which could be most bizarre. Every morning while the surface of the lagoon was unruffled, every evening when the trade wind had died down, I would spend hours drifting in the canoe, watching with amazement the underwater panorama which unfolded below me. ….It was my ambition to get on closer terms with the fish and to meet them on their own level.
The pressure of the air within the helmet is kept up by the pump, operated from the launch overhead. Provided the man at the job does not go to sleep in the sun, there is sufficient pressure to prevent the water rising above chin level.
The helmet sat on the shoulders and had lead weights attached to keep it in position. Robert’s accounts of his first dives with the equipment are hilarious. He was helped into the water at the ladder on the pier by Mr. Whitfield, the director of the Station.
As I stepped down that ladder with the noise of the pump echoing down the hose-pipe, and the waves splashing against the window of the helmet so that I could see neither land nor water, I wondered why I had ever left home. But once below the surface my feelings changed. My ears ceased throbbing, I breathed easily, I forgot the noise of the pump and I could see easily. From the hard rung of the ladder I stepped onto the soft ooze of the sea-floor. It was like being in some great cathedral lit by pale green glass.
Robert had difficulty staying on his feet during this first dive and he surfaced. The problem was rectified by Mr Whitfield getting twenty pounds of lead piping and wrapping it around Robert’s waist, after which he could walk around the bottom with perfect ease. He had wondered how he would be able to draw underwater and had tried several methods unsuccessfully until a friend at Reading University suggested using sheets of ‘Xylonite’, a substance resembling celluloid. When roughened with sandpaper, the sheets accepted pencil drawings comfortably. For pencils he used sticks of graphite encased in rubber tubing. He dived around the reefs on Bermuda and on nearby Coopers Island. His output of underwater art was prolific and in recounting his experiences, his writings are interspersed with a wonderful array of humorous and interesting anecdotes about the locality and its characters. Most of his underwater pictures were subsequently re-worked as woodcuts. Robert had agreed with Penguin Books to write about this journey and several others and his next venture took him to the Red Sea.
In the Spring of 1938, Robert travelled via Paris to Marseilles where he boarded a P&O steamer headed for Port Said in Egypt. He seems not to have enjoyed the trip on the ship as he wrote that he was confined in tourist class ‘in the uttermost bowels of the ship in a small cabin.’ That Robert had an eye for the ladies is evident in a story that he told about:
A fanatical evangelist with a lovely wife. He has tried to convert me to his beliefs, I have tried to convert her to mine, so far, no score on either side.’
From there he travelled to Suez by train to catch a small oil tanker heading south. An example of his descriptive prose can be gained from his account of Port Said……
……… and refusing the importunate vendors of postcards, and then the train rolled out across the isthmus showing on one side the dull walls of proud man’s little canal and on the other side a panorama of time worn customs and age-old history; mud walls, minarets, pink sands, splay legged camels, black cloaked women in lush green fields, palms, sheep, goats, water wheels, vultures and opthalmia.
Robert’s destination was the Marine Research Station at Hurghada but on the way the ship stopped at a little Island called Towila where some oil surveyors were put ashore. Here Robert had a chance to get ashore and he describes swimming with some huge rays and being caught in a sandstorm. Any visitor to Hurghada today would not recognize the place from Robert Gibbings’s description in 1938 in which he said:
The port of Hurghada consists of a pier and a line of mud-walled houses following the cresent of the bay… On the shore close to the landing stage, were lying a few canoes, and moored nearby were native sailing feluccas. A ten-inch oil-pipe hung its nozzle over the pier and guttered its filthy dregs into the clean water
A far cry from the Hurghada of today, which has, since Robert’s day, become a Mecca for thousands of Irish divers who enjoy the splendid hospitality of five star hotels and superb dive-boats that bring divers out to enjoy the superlative underwater scenery and fish-life that was sampled by Robert all those years ago. The Research Station at Hurghada was run by the University of Egypt and they had diving equipment similar to that which Robert had used in Bermuda. Robert spent a great length of time under the water sketching and later writing about all that he had seen. He expressed great disappointment that he never saw a shark in all of that time. Of ‘Nemo’ he wrote the following….
In among the crevices of the dead coral were giant anemones, among whose tentacles might be discovered a small fish marked with conspicuous white bars across its bronze body, which, either by long habit or by ‘gentleman’s agreement’ had gained immunity from the stinging cells of its host. Living as it does under cover of such a battery, it achieves a greater security from its enemies than it would have if dependent on its own resources. In order to repay the hospitality granted, it makes it its business to dart from cover and endeavour to lure or drive any passing stranger within reach of the tentacles. Should it be successful there is no lack of reward in the crumbs that fall from its host’s table.
The book that emerged from this series of travels was the classic ‘Blue Angel and Whales’
Robert received a divorce from Moira and he married Elizabeth Empson, a lady twenty years his junior and they had three children. During the Second World War, Robert’s family affairs once more foundered when Elizabeth and the children departed for Canada and Robert eventually established a relationship with her younger sister, Patience, with whom he spent the rest of his days.
When Robert returned from The Red Sea, he resumed his teaching career at Reading University. In addition to the sea, rivers had held a fascination for him since his childhood days by the Bandon and the Lee. He had been living near the River Thames for many years and the notion of exploring the river from its source to the sea occurred to him. He set about building a large flat-bottomed boat in the university workshops with some help from his son and a few teachers. He called the boat the Willow and it was launched in July 1939 almost as war was about to break out. He began the voyage at Lechlade after having walked the few miles of the river that were un-navigable. He spent the next six weeks travelling at a leisurely pace down the upper reaches of the Thames sleeping on board under canvas at night and sketching, making notes and collecting specimens. Many a public house along the way seems to have had a thorough checking. With the outbreak of war he put the project on hold. He joined the river patrol and also did some work on designing camouflage for the Ministry of Defence. In 1940 he resumed the journey down the Thames to the tidal regions and he published his wonderful book ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly’ describing the journey. Despite the war, the book was an instant success. This paved the way for a series of similar books after the war, based on similar journeys, that included, Coming down the Wye’ ‘Coming down the Seine’ and ‘Sweet Cork of Thee’ and ‘Lovely is the Lee’, both about his native home. He did much of the writing for these two latter books in Gougane Barra in Cork. All were equally successful. This once again gave Robert financial success and in between writing he embarked on another tour of the Pacific, all the time writing and sketching, resulting in yet another best seller, entitled ‘Over the Reefs’
One of Robert Gibbings’s last written works was appropriately entitled ‘Till I end My Song’.
It contained many reminiscences of his long and productive life. He was diagnosed as having cancer and he died on January 26 th 1958. He was writing and producing works of art up to the very end.
The narratives of much of Gibbings’s writings are eloquently descriptive and humorous and they mostly tend to meander in and out of one anecdote after another while heading towards the main focus. He still has quite a following of readers today and while some of his books are now quite rare and can be acquired in the second hand book trade, many more have been reprinted and are readily available. A thought occurs that perhaps Robert would have enjoyed the phenomenon of Scuba Diving. Original etchings or wood-cut prints by Robert rarely come on the market but whenever they appear they achieve very good prices. The Crawford Gallery in Cork City have been accumulating a sizeable collection of his works in recent years while the bulk of his papers and many of his works are held in Reading University.
A recent biographer of Robert Gibbings, Martin J. Andrews of Reading University, in describing one of Roberts written works, quite aptly summed up the man..
But above all it was in his observation of nature and his descriptions of the mood and atmosphere of the open air and the landscape, ranging from the evocation of a dramatic sunset to the detail of a dewdrop on a blade of grass, that his writing was at its best. His style was not that of the intellectual. It came from the spirit, a mixture of poetic evocation, intense observation, factual detail and, above all, a sense of enjoyment and love of life.
- The Life and Work of Robert Gibbings, Martin J. Andrews
- Blue Angels and Whales,
- Over the Reefs,
- Lovely is the Lee,
- Sweet Thames Flow Softly,
- Coming down the Seine,
- Coming the Wye,
- Sweet Cork of Thee,
- Iorana, a Tahitian Journal,
- Trumpets From Montparnasse,
- Till I end My Song.
- Fiona Barnard, Librarian and curator, special collections, Reading University.
- Heather Chalcroft.