Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert Gibbings (1889-1958)

Robert Gibbings
recent post on coral reefs led me to pick up a book by one of Ireland's best naturalists, writers and artists. In his book Blue Angels and Whales, Robert Gibbings describes the slow development of a reef as follows:
"Though it may take seven thousand years for some of the slower-growing corals to build a reef a hundred and fifty feet in depth, or perhaps a quarter of that time for some of the quicker-growing species to achieve the same result, nevertheless the activity goes on unceasingly.
And it is not only the exuberant growth of the living polyp which, ramifying everywhere, builds up these great structures. It is the dead coral also. broken by the waves and reduced to powder by boring molluscs and worms, this serves as cement to bind the whole together; and, burying themselves in it, there are shell-fish who in turn contribute their shells to the general structure. Over it all is deposited a gentle rain of sediment from the seawater. One day, when the living rock has reached the surface, a floating coco-nut will be arrested in its travels and, taking root, will throw up its leaves. Then begins another cycle. The leaves of the tree will fall and rot, forming humus, and in this humus other seeds, borne by the sea and wind, will take root. They in their turn will die and form further soil, and so a new world will come into being on which all the romance and tragedy of human life will find a setting."
Robert Gibbings was born in Cork in 1889, the son of a Church of Ireland minister. His mother was the daughter of Robert Day, a noted Cork businessman and importantly, a collector of art and cultural objects from all over the world. Gibbings undoubtedly came under Day's influence in his formative years: Myrtle Hill, the Day family's home in Cork was full of strange objects, from Celtic gold torcs to spears from the South Sea Islands.

Gibbings enrolled in University College Cork to study medicine in 1907. In Lovely is the Lee he notes that his time at UCC was not always as successful as it might have been:
"It wasn't that there was any ill will between us (the professors at the college), it was just that they couldn't agree with my answers to their questions. The professor of zoology* lamented that I seemed more interested in the outside than the inside of a rabbit."
*Probably Prof. Marcus Hartog at the time.

Engraving from 'Beasts and Saints'
Gibbings left UCC inside three years, having persuaded his parents that art rather than medicine was his calling. He proceeded to study art in Cork before moving to London to the Slade School in 1911. 

By 1914 he was on the move again, this time enlisted with the 4th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. He survived a bullet in the neck at Gallipoli before being stationed back in Cork (at Bere Island) and Dublin. A posting to Salonika finished his military career and he was invalided out of the army in 1919.

Gibbings had a life-time interest in wood engravings and helped found the Society of Wood-Engravers. For the next few years, he took on a large number of small commissions, producing wood engravings and prints for advertising and the publishing industry.

Engraving from 'Blue Angels &Whales'
Around 1923, Gibbings became the owner of a small printing works, Golden Cockerel Press following the loan of one thousand pounds from a friend, Hubert Pike, a director of the Bentley Motor company. Gibbings and his new wife Moira set about reviving the fortunes of the struggling press with the aid of Eric Gill, another noted artist, sculptor and typeface designer.

By all accounts, life at the press was unconventional, to say the least, with "dancing and games in the nude" being a common pastime. Gibbings had a lifelong interest in naturism.

In 1926, another publisher sent Gibbings to Tahiti to work with an author and to illustrate his books. However, when the writer subsequently withdrew from the project, Gibbings added his own words to his illustrations and had the books published anyway. The Seventh Man and Iorana were the result.

In the early 1930's the press was sold and Gibbings divorced his first wife and so began a rather bleak time for the artist.

By 1937 he was teaching at Reading University but still struggling to make ends meet. He had two daughters with a new wife, Elizabeth Empson however this marriage soon began to falter. Elizabeth's sister Patience was later to become his secretary and aide.

After this period, Gibbings seems to have made a concerted effort to concentrate on both his teaching and his writing.

Gibbings diving in Bermuda
Blue Angels and Whales was based upon his diving experience in both Bermuda and at the Red Sea.

At the Bermuda Marine Research Station he borrowed their primitive diving helmet (pictured) and hand operated air-pump and set about observing underwater life, a subject he had become fascinated with. The diving was not without its dangers as he notes:

"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."
Using sheets of Xylonite, Gibbings was able to draw under water using an adapted pencil (sticks of graphite encased in rubber tubing).

Throughout Gibbings books, whether travel related or on natural history, he takes time to recount events in his journey which seemingly led him to meet a wonderful array of humorous and interesting local characters. For example, on a steamer from Marseilles to Port Said, Egypt he notes a meeting with

"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."
Clownfish by Gibbings, from 'Blue Angels & Whales'
Gibbings was headed towards the Marine Research Station at Hurghada, run by the University of Egypt. The station had diving gear similar to Bermuda's and the artist made full use of it. Of the now famous Clownfish (of Finding Nemo fame) he writes:

"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."
After his return to the UK, the author became further interested in rivers and built a boat (The Willow) in which he set about travelling down the Thames making notes on the passing wildlife. The outbreak of the second world war disrupted his Thames trip and he did some work designing camouflage for the Ministry of Defence - he had become intrigued by the use of colour as camouflage in nature, particularly in fish living on coral reefs.

When he resumed his boating he wrote another book, Sweet Thames Run Softly, supplemented by his wood engravings. More travel books were to follow, often based about rivers: Coming down the Wye, Coming down the Seine, Sweet Cork of Thee and Lovely is the Lee. All of the books are charming mixtures of humour, natural history, science, geography, social observation and old tales gleaned from talkative locals. 

These books were all hugely successful and meant Gibbings was financially successful for the first time in his life. With his new-found wealth, the set off on another tour of the Pacific where he wrote and illustrated Over the Reefs.

Gibbings' last book, Till I End my Song, contains many reminiscences of his long and productive life. He died of cancer in January 1958.

The attraction of Gibbings' books is their easy mixture of science and natural history alongside a wicked sense of humour and fun. Much like the rivers he loved, none of his books are in a hurry to get anywhere. As one reviewer notes, "they mostly tend to meander in and out of one anecdote after another while heading towards the main focus".

Many of Gibbings' books are readily available having been reprinted extensively. This author has in his possession a much-prized first edition of Sweet Cork of Thee, signed by the author.

In later life, Gibbings was a familiar sight and sound on BBC TV and Radio and David Attenborough cites him as one of the formative influences on his own carreer. A Pathe newsreel featuring Gibbings can be viewed below.

Robert Gibbings was unique: an artist, writer and scientist; one of Ireland's greatest artists and a man with an extraordinary thirst for life.

His biographer, Martin Andrews, sums up the man as follows:
"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."


Further Reading:
Listen to Martin Andrews, Reading University talk about Gibbings and how he re-discovered one of Gibbings' first pieces of sculpture here.


  © Communicate Science; Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2012

Back to TOP