Artist Robert Gillmor’s Norfolk inspirations

An artist off to work: Robert Gillmor sets off at his beloved NWT Cley reserve.

An artist off to work: Robert Gillmor sets off at his beloved NWT Cley reserve. - Credit: Archant

Robert Gillmor, one of the best-known wildlife artists and printmakers in the UK today, shares his love of Norfolk from a schoolboy's early visit to the Broads to half a lifetime observing and sketching waders at NWT Cley.

as file name, must credit

as file name, must credit - Credit: Archant

North Norfolk and its wildlife have been a tremendous inspiration to me for over half a lifetime. I grew up in Berkshire, about as far from the sea as you can get, but two visits to the Broads as a schoolboy sparked a lifelong interest. But it was not until the Sixties that I started to visit regularly.

In the early years I stayed in Letheringsett with Noel Cusa who had retired early to devote himself to painting birds. With him I got to know the Trust's Cley Reserve and Cley's resident field ornithologist and artist, Richard Richardson, who would join us for dinner to talk bird art and look at Noel's slides taken on his trips round the world. In 1988 I came to watch and draw avocets for a painting that was commissioned to celebrate the RSPB centenary the following year.

Regular annual trips followed and sketchbooks were filled with the birds seen at the coastal reserves. In 1974 I married a fellow artist, who had grown up in East Anglia, and in 1979 we started to come on family holidays, staying in a friend's cottage in Cley. After 18 years the children fledged and we decided to move here permanently and in 1998 we were lucky to find a small house overlooking the Reserve and the sea.

After nearly 40 years illustrating books I was keen to return to my first love – printmaking. With my favourite subjects practically on the doorstep that is just what I did, and have carried on for the last 18 years.

In 1985 I had taken over the design for the jackets from Collins New Naturalist series, started in 1945. Whenever an opportunity arises I sneak in a familiar local image such as the tower of Langham Church or the cliffs at Hunstanton. The peregrine falcon for the cover of the volume on 'Falcons' was based on a quick sketch made in a Cley hide when a peregrine flew in with a dead duck which it proceeded to pluck and eat. This absorbing episode lasted 20 minutes and is typical of the unexpected event that can so often enliven an otherwise quiet period of watching and waiting.

The arrival of a small breeding flock of spoonbills at Holkham in 2010 has brought new interest to the summer bird scene and new subjects for picture making. They, with egrets, have replaced other birds which we have lost, or are losing, as climate change rapidly alters the environment to which they have become adapted over many centuries. Such factors emphasise the importance and value of the Trust's unique managed reserves, re-creating and preserving essential habitats for birds such as bitterns and avocets. It is the long-legged wading birds, herons, avocets, oystercatchers and others, which really excite me. They mostly have simple, bold plumage patterns which translate well into my linocut prints. This is no medium for little brown, streaky jobs that skulk in bushes.

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Birds don't come more 'long legged' than the stilt which occasionally turns up on our coast. With its long, red legs, black and white plumage it is a perfect subject for me and has featured on more than one book jacket. Some of the local birds which have made their way into my sketchbooks have reappeared on the 24 designs for Royal Mail's 'Post & Go' stamps of British birds, issued in 2011. These, and many others, are examples of the influence of the rich local bird life on my work. I am deeply fortunate and grateful to have been able to follow my career in an area where bird life is so well looked after by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Birdwatching on the Cley Marshes today is very different to the time my grandfather came in the autumn, with his sketchbook and 'field glasses', 115 years ago. He described his stay in The Birds of the Air, an account of his birding experiences at many sites around the country, gathering material for the plates he would paint for Kirkman and Jourdain's British Bird Book, 1910-1913.

The other birders he met were equipped with guns, not telescopes or tripods, and they were collecting not watching. He went into the local taxidermist's shop and was told how the fine weather had delayed the arrival of migrants. In other years the taxidermist had often been unable to cope with the work, and skins had to be thrown away for sheer lack of time to work on them.

Later grandfather met two men sitting on a bank – a young collector and his gunner, waiting for the chance of a shot. They had only 'collected' a reeve. Grandfather admired the velvety-brown feathers and the young man supposed 'you are not really interested in birds, but only so far as it is your business to draw them.' Grandad replied that his 'interest in birds at any rate did no harm to them.' The young man laughed and acknowledged the thrust.

How different today when birdwatchers flock to the Reserve and fill the hides with enthusiasm for the living birds in view outside. Birds are shot, but with cameras and sketched with pencils, and the local shop is no longer a temple to killing but a gallery of pictures and books.