Yesterday morning, May 13th
2022, I learnt from the Guardian newspaper that Robert Gillmor, the bird artist, had died. I was slightly shocked. He is probably the most famous person I have ever spoken to. We have several things in common: he loved birds; he was Reading born and bred; he was a teacher (at Leighton Park School in Reading); he knew my mother.
I first came across him in Reading in the mid-1960s. At that time my mother was a private nurse, and her latest assignment was caring for Robert Gillmor’s old mother. When Robert learnt I was a keen bird-watcher and a member of ROC (Reading Ornithological Club), he made a point of meeting me. I can’t remember if he gave me anything, but he may have – possibly Xmas cards adorned with his beautiful designs. What I do remember is his kindness. Here was somebody famous giving up his time to talk to a schoolboy. I instantly became a fan of the man and his work.
The internet has enabled me to keep track of Robert’s career. There are several interesting videos about him on Youtube, and his splendid bird designs are all there if you
Google ‘Robert Gillmor’. In 2010, he was selected by the Royal Mail to design a series of postage stamps featuring British birds, eventually producing 36 lino-cut designs. What an accolade! It ensured that his unique art work reached a national audience. His name did not appear on the stamps, but this modest man would not have minded.
When my wife and I bought an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City in 2017, I festooned the walls with paintings, photographs and pictures. Among the pictures are 17 of my favourite Robert Gillmor bird designs. I had them printed and laminated, and they now grace the hall area outside our bedroom. The birds represented are quintessentially English, my favourites being Blackbird (tail erect, red berry in beak), Bullfinches (male and female on snow-covered twigs) and Mute Swan (swimming majestically with wings raised). Three fabulously simple and striking lino-cuts – unmistakably the work of Robert Gillmor.
I wrote him a fan letter in 2019 and received the following reply: Dear Kevin Many thanks for your email of 6 March, and my apologies for this late reply. I have been hospitalised with leg problems, which make me rather immobile! However
I am fine otherwise, and hard at work in my studio each day. We left Reading 21 years ago, and now live overlooking the bird-rich marsh and the sea, on the North Norfolk coast. After over 40 years illustrating, I have returned to my first love, print-making, and am lucky that there is an excellent wildlife Gallery in the village! I'll write properly and send some cards of recent work. Best wishes Robert
I never did hear from him again. That is understandable because, in 2019, he was 82 and struggling with his health.
I know the work of three great bird artists: Archibald Thorburn (whose portraits adorn The Observer’s Book of Birds
), John James Audubon (whose monumental Birds of America
depicts every North American bird) and Robert Gillmor. What a wonderful profession to have - celebrating the natural world through art, combining art with nature. Of the three, I feel closest to Robert because of the Reading connection. And, of the three, Robert is my favourite because of the uncluttered simplicity and elegance of his designs.
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