Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Robert Gibbings: early colour woodcuts

Robert Gibbings (1889 - 1958) came from the Irish city of Cork and if Retreat from Serbia, 1916 (above) doesn't look very much like the Venice of the West, I am pretty sure his interest in bridges comes at least in part from the memorable limestone bridges that cross the river Lee there. After making very little headway as a medical student in his home city, he persuaded his father to subsidise lessons with a local painter before taking off to London and the Slade School in 1912. Two years later he volunteered for the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Commissioned at the rank of lieutenant, he was shot in the neck leading his men against Ottoman defences during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. He drew on the time he spent recuperating, first in Salonica and then Malta to produce a small group of eloquent and unusual little colour prints - as eloquent and unusual as the man himself.

In January, 1916, he had opened the pages of a British illustrated newspaper to find a series of photographs showing first the disastrous retreat of the Serbian army through Albania, followed by more photographs of Britsh transports at anchor at Salonica. These ships had arrived as a relief force but too late, the intention being also to hold Salonica if they could not capture Constantinople. Gibbings had seen the slaughter and later read of the withdrawal from the Gallipoli Peninsula. Now, there was a powerful photo of yet another wholesale withdrawal. He merely cropped the photo and cut the images from chestnut planks. The result was as simple as it is sedcutive. We look at this print today and think, 'What is happening here?' Now you know. [The photo comes from ebay.]

He sailed from Salonica in the hospital ship you see here in Shipboard, the Llandovery castle,1918. As it happens this is a wood engraving. Gibbings had also enrolled in the etching class at the Central School but at the suggestion of Noel Rooke, he tried wood-engraving instead. The same dramatic use of keyblock and shadow is there but used with greater sophistication. What we see on the decks of the Llandovery Castle is the tedium that can effect troops; what we see in The retreat from Serbia is the way imagination can override a lack experience and produce a haunting work of distillation. Each of the images here somehow slips free of the mundane.

There is also a sophisticated interest in structure and light and shadow in the print. Gibbings was well able to ring the changes between the finesse of engraving and the more direct expressiveness of woodcut. Evening at Gaza, 1918, manages to combine the two. (He spent a month in Alexandria I think before the Gallipoli landings). Here he uses the simple silhouette and keyblock with a gradation of one colour on a second block. This is as far away from the Japanese method as you can get and when these works were praised in 1919, there was an immediate response from William Seaby. All the same, it has the glamour we require of the best colour woodcuts. Even so, by the time he used the method for the lst time in Albert Bridge, Chelsea, 1919, he was already tiring of its obvious limitations. He had outgrown colour woodcut as he had outgrown Cork. Here is the Irishman, full of immediacy, restlessness and flair.


  1. Charles - Stunning series of posts recently, you are on fire - but this is particularly interesting. I don't think I even knew Gibbings had made colour woodblock prints, never mind all the valuable personal, historical and psychological context you provide. Great.

  2. Thanks, Neil, very kind.

    This is only an abbreviated version of my Gibbings spiel. He put a great deal into 'Retreat from Serbia'. I saw it at auction many years ago and couldn't afford to buy it. Deeply disappointing because it has great impact. The Imperial War Museum obviously have a proof but there's no image online (hence the ebay photo).