Robert Gillmor, ornithologist and wildlife illustrator who drew the original RSPB avocet logo – obituary

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Robert Gillmor on the North Norfolk coast in 2006 - Martin Pope
Robert Gillmor on the North Norfolk coast in 2006 - Martin Pope

Robert Gillmor, who has died aged 85, was one of the country’s most popular and highly regarded wildlife artists and illustrators.

His most famous work was the RSPB’s original avocet logo, and his prodigious output included 62 covers for the influential Collins New Naturalist series of books as well as 42 stamps (four series of birds, three of animals) for the Royal Mail’s “Post and Go” service.

A keen ornithologist, often to be seen with binoculars and sketch pad in the saltings near his home in the Norfolk coastal village of Cley next the Sea, or in hides at reserves such as Titchwell, Gillmor was a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists and served as its secretary, chairman and, for 10 years, president.

GIllmor's original RSPB logo
GIllmor's original RSPB logo

His work over the years included sketches, paintings, linocuts, book covers, posters, cards and mugs – even soft furnishings – all showing the beauty of the natural world. Always immaculately executed, it was usually bold in design, with clear lines and subtle yet vibrant colours.

The sheer volume of Gillmor’s output meant that most people would recognise his style, even if few knew his name.

Robert Gillmor was born at Mortimer, on the outskirts of Reading, on July 6 1936, and went to Leighton Park School, a Quaker school. A keen naturalist as a boy, he learnt about drawing and printmaking by watching his maternal grandfather, the wildlife artist Allen William Seaby.

Gillmor’s own first published illustrations, ink drawings of the Manx shearwater, appeared in British Birds in 1952 while he was still at school.

Migrating lapwings, from Gillmor's book Cutting Away
Migrating lapwings, from Gillmor's book Cutting Away

He studied art at the University of Reading, where his grandfather was professor of fine art, and while there he illustrated his first book, David Snow’s A Study of Blackbirds. He then taught art at his old school for six years.

When he started out few people earned a living from drawing and painting birds. It was Gillmor who in 1960 wrote to all the best bird artists of the day – Peter Scott, Keith Shackleton, Eric Ennion and others – and persuaded them to participate in an exhibition of their work.

The show toured the country for two years and led to the formation of the Society of Wildlife Artists, which held its first exhibition in 1964. The Society has continued to hold an annual exhibition in London ever since, helping to bring about a renaissance in wildlife art.

Cutting lino for his book Alien Plants - Tony Buckingham
Cutting lino for his book Alien Plants - Tony Buckingham

Gillmor, who went freelance in 1965, went on to illustrate more than 100 books, as well as producing a steady flow of watercolours, scraperboard drawings and linocuts, all based on close observation of living birds (and often other creatures) in their natural habitat.

Lino-cutting was his favourite medium, and one he made his own, using an Albion press that featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 2006 he published Cutting Away, a collection of 90 of his avian linocuts.

His favourite bird to watch – and to illustrate – was the avocet: “The chicks totter around on too-large legs, exploring this and trying that. Every so often mum calls her chicks to be brooded. They pile under her loose belly feathers, her wings drooping on either side, and all that can be seen are a mass of little legs jostling for the cosiest position.”

Sketching in Norfolk
Sketching in Norfolk

When he received his first UK stamp commission in 2010, Gillmor had previous experience, having designed a set of stamps for the Seychelles in the 1970s. The brief was for one bird on each stamp, but he told the Post Office that he would not do a single magpie because of the saying “one for sorrow, two for joy”. His point was accepted and the result was a depiction of a pair of magpies.

For each image he carried out painstaking research before hand-cutting and printing at least seven separate linoleum blocks . “That meant cutting 170 blocks,” he recalled. His stamps proved so popular that a scheme originally intended for just 30 of the self-service Post and Go machines in the biggest post offices, was rolled out across the UK.

Gillmor and his wife Sue, a fine artist in her own right, moved to Cley from Reading in 1998, and Norfolk often featured in his illustrations. His covers for the New Naturalist volume on Lichens ( 2000) featured tombstones from Binham Priory blotched orange, white and grey, against the facade of the ruined building; British Bats (2003) showed a view of Wiveton Church, and Bumblebees (2006) a honeysuckle buzzing with the insects on his garden wall.

'Norfolk Night' from Cutting Away
'Norfolk Night' from Cutting Away

Hard-working, generous with his time and always happy to show people around his studio, Gillmor did much to promote the work of fellow wildlife artists and past master such as Charles Tunnicliffe, editing three books of his work. From 1977 to 1994 he was art editor of the nine-volume Birds of the Western Palaearctic.

In Norfolk he helped to raise funds for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes land purchase appeal, but was firmly opposed to plans by the RSPB and Natural England to introduce sea eagles to the county.

He served on the council of the RSPB, the British Ornithologists’ Union and the British Trust for Ornithology. A retrospective of his work was exhibited at Reading Museum in 2011-12, and in 2014 his work featured in the “Wonder of Birds” exhibition at Norwich Castle.

In 2001 he was awarded the RSPB Medal (which he had designed) and in 2015 was appointed MBE.

Gillmor married Susan Norman in 1974. She survives him with their son and daughter.

Robert Gillmor, born July 6 1936, died May 8 2022

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