Robert John Gibbings, Irish artist and author most noted for his work as a wood engraver and sculptor, and for his books on travel and natural history, is born into a middle-class family in Cork, County Cork on March 23, 1889. Along with Noel Rooke he is one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920, and is a major influence in the revival of wood engraving in the twentieth century.
Gibbings’ father, the Reverend Edward Gibbings, is a Church of Ireland minister. His mother, Caroline, is the daughter of Robert Day, Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and president of The Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. He grows up in the town of Kinsale where his father is the rector of St. Multose Church.
Gibbings studies medicine for three years at University College Cork before deciding to persuade his parents to allow him to take up art. He studies under the painter Harry Scully in Cork and later at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Central School of Art and Design.
Gibbings is very much at the centre of developments in wood engraving. He is a founder member and leading light of the Society of Wood Engravers, which he sets up with Noel Rooke in 1920. In 1922 he contributes two wood engravings, “Clear Waters” and “Hamrun,” to Contemporary English Woodcuts, an anthology of wood engravings produced by Thomas Balston, a director at Gerald Duckworth & Company and an enthusiast for the new style of wood engravings. In 1923 he receives a commission for a set of wood engravings for The Lives of Gallant Ladies for the Golden Cockerel Press, his most important commission to date at 100 guineas.
Gibbings is working on the wood engravings The Lives of Gallant Ladies when Hal Taylor, the owner of the press, becomes very ill with tuberculosis and has to put it up for sale. He seeks a loan from a friend, Hubert Pike, a director of Bentley Motors, to buy the press. He takes over in February 1924 and owns and runs the press until 1933.
Gibbings illustrates numerous books on travel and natural history, including Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, and writes a series of bestselling river books, notably Sweet Thames Run Softly. He does a huge amount to popularise the subject of natural history, travelling extensively through Polynesia, Bermuda and the Red Sea to gather inspiration for his work.
Gibbings is the first man to draw underwater, the illustrations filling his Penguin classic Blue Angels and Whales. He is one of the first natural history presenters on the BBC.
In September 1955 Gibbings and his wife, Patience, purchase Footbridge Cottage, a tiny beehive of a cottage in Gibbings’s words, in Long Wittenham on the banks of the River Thames. Life there suits him, and he has a period of tranquility that he had not known previously. They live there until he dies of cancer in an Oxford hospital on January 19, 1958. He is buried in the churchyard at Long Wittenham. The grave is marked by a simple headstone featuring his device of a crossed quill and graver, carved by Michael Black, a young sculptor who is a friend of Gibbings.