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Pressing matters

2 April 2018

Affectionately known as the grandfather of wildlife art, Robert Gillmor is preparing for what he says will be his last major show this April, ‘Pressing On’ at Pinkfoot Gallery in Cley, along with the launch of his latest book. Amanda Loose meets the octogenarian printmaker, who just keeps pressing on

Whether you know it or not, chances are you’re already familiar with Robert’s work, whether you’ve spotted the logo on the pavement plaques of Holt’s Owl Trail, the iconic RSPB logo, one of his 66 Collins New Naturalist covers or his 46 stamp designs for Royal Mail.

He’s a past president and one of the last surviving founder members of the Society of Wildlife Artists, has contributed to over 500 books and scores of magazines, and was awarded an MBE for services to wildlife art in 2015.

This spring’s exciting new book and exhibition focus on linocuts from the last 12 years; the show will feature over 200 linocuts including New Naturalist covers, his designs for Royal Mail Post & Go stamps as well as some gems from the past.

But Robert is someone who in his own words just “gets on with it,” producing the most exquisite hand-printed linocuts at his home in Cley, on a press dating from 1860 (a model which was shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851).

Temple, Bishop and Bean, linocut

Robert’s move to Cley, 20 years ago this March, was of huge significance. “Moving up here meant I could really change everything. I wanted to get back to my first love, printmaking, which is really what I’d always wanted to do. I was keen on birds from a very early age and doing linocuts at school – the 1949 annual report for the Reading Ornithological Club used a crude little linocut of mine for the cover and I’ve been doing their covers ever since.

“Once I got married I had to earn a living and support a family, and printmaking was a luxury. The press had not been used really since the 1970s, and been in a glasshouse at our home in Reading which became a family dumping ground – you could hardly see the press.

Blakeney Barn Owl, linocut

“From my point of view the natural history [up here] was just what I wanted. I could go and get all the ideas I needed sitting in the hides here in Cley, at Titchwell and other places.

“Going and drawing from life is vital. It’s the best possible way to get to know what an animal is really like to try to capture what we call its ‘jizz’, that particular character which each species has.”

The actual printmaking process can take a week, and usually much longer, depending on the number of blocks needed for different colours.

“I love playing around with the colours and over printing to create new colours – on one mad print I used 20 colours. If you do an edition of 85 copies of a five block print, that’s five times 85 and all the prints and inks which don’t work. It is time consuming.

Avocet and Chicks, linocut

“The stamps were extremely intense work over two or three years – by the time I’d finished I was practically knocked out by it. I learnt a lot doing it though. After the first sets (Birds of Britain and Farm Animals) I thought that’s it, no more. But then to my great surprise I was commissioned to do Winter Fur and Feathers, and I thought it’s got mammals in it, which I hadn’t done in winter.

“Obviously I do get an enormous enjoyment out of doing this – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. You need a good eye and a steady hand. There are times when it can get a bit fraught, but I know now pretty well what I’m doing. I don’t work quite as flat out as I used to.”

Need to know

The Pressing On exhibition opens at 10am on 28 April at Pinkfoot Gallery in Cley and runs to 11 May. Pre-selling starts on 25 April at 10am on 01263 740947. You can view images at www.pinkfootgallery.co.uk.

Pressing On: A Decade of New Linocuts will be published by Mascot Media in April, £25 (£20 from the gallery during the show).