New Naturalists Covers
The stunning, specially commissioned cover images are one of the great joys of the New Naturalist series. Most of the original book covers were designed by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis. Robert Gillmor has designed the covers for the more recent volumes. We caught up with him at his home in Norfolk in the summer of 2008.
Robert Gilmor was born and educated in Reading and was greatly influenced by his grandfather, Allen Seaby, who was Professor of Fine Art at Reading University. Robert spent a great deal of time watching him in his studio, carefully printing his colour woodcuts. This was also Robert’s first introduction to the New Naturalist books as his grandfather had a painting of Blackcock Lekking featured in the second volume of the series, British Game.
With a strong interest in birds and drawing, Robert spent a good deal of time bird-watching and studying bird behaviour in the various flooded gravel pits around Reading. He was an active member of the Reading Ornithological Club and, in 1949 while still a young schoolboy, illustrated the first cover of their Annual Report and has continued to design these ever since, (although now it is the annual Berkshire Bird Report). Robert’s first commercial use of linocuts was in 1958 for the cover of David Snow’s book, A Study of Blackbirds, for which he had done the line drawings. Around this time he became involved with annual RSPB film shows, brought to Reading by Frank Hamilton, a member of the Society’s tiny staff. Frank saw and admired Robert’s early artwork and this lead to occasional line drawings for society publications and covers for the film programmes, which in turn lead to covers for Birds Magazine and eventually Christmas cards. He also helped re-design the RSPB’s Avocet logo.
Robert also got to know the writer and broadcaster Tony Soper, whom he met in Reading whilst filming for the BBC television series ‘Out of Doors’. Drawings were soon commissioned from the BBC and also for Tony Soper’s Bird Table Book which was first published in 1965. This book became hugely popular and has gone through various editions. The striking original jacket design featured a Great Tit and a Great Spotted Woodpecker using a four colour linocut.
In the late fifties, with the support of leading bird artists of the day such as Peter Scott, he organised ‘Exhibition by Contemporary Bird Painters’, which led directly to the founding of the Society of Wildlife Artists in 1964. Having spent six years teaching art at Leighton Park in Reading, Robert retired from teaching in 1965 when he found himself doing two full-time jobs. He was also becoming more involved with The Society of Wildlife Artists, of which he was the first secretary. In 1966 Robert became the art editor of the prestigious publication Birds of the Western Palearctic. He continued to illustrate over 100 books as well as work for the RSPB, BTO and his local wildlife trust. Eventually he returned to his great love for printmaking when he and Sue moved to the north Norfolk coast in 1998. Although Robert is one of Britain’s leading ornithological illustrators, he now spends nearly all his creative time printmaking with the occasional watercolour for a Poyser jacket and pen and ink drawings for the local bird reports.
Robert had long admired the work of Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, especially through their jacket designs for the New Naturalist books. In 1985 he was approached by Crispin Fisher, who was the Natural History Editor at Collins, to design the dust jackets for the New Naturalist series. Clifford Ellis had died earlier that year, aged 78 and his widow Rosemary felt that she could no longer carry on with the series.
The remarkable team of Clifford and Rosemary Ellis had designed more than 86 covers over a period of 40 years, giving the series its distinctive branding. Crispin Fisher was quite adamant that he wanted Robert to take over the mantle of the Ellises and although Robert was very cautious about following in the footsteps of such eminent artists, he eventually accepted the commission. Crispin and Robert both agreed that it was important to retain the basic layout and use of four flat colours and his first NN jacket design was for Warblers.
At that time Robert had not resumed his linocutting and this design was made up of black drawings for each of the four colours, using overlaps to create extra colours.
The following jackets were designed in the same way until Robert and Sue moved to Norfolk and the design for The Broads, published in 2001, used a linocut for the first time. Since volume 95, Northumberland, all the jacket designs have been full linocuts often involving six or seven blocks and up to twenty colours. The entire process is carried out by hand using his wonderful 1860 Albion Press.
At the time of this interview, Robert was now working on his 39th New Naturalist jacket and I was very honoured to have a sneak preview of the design for Southern England, volume 108 in the series. With an average of four titles a year being published, Robert is always working on one of these iconic jacket designs.
In the case of the jacket for Southern England, Robert visited an impressive section of sea cliffs in north Norfolk and from his field sketches, worked out a powerful design showing striking sedimentation, which will work well both as a jacket design and linocut in its own right, and yet also sit well with the rest of the New Naturalist series.
Robert is tremendously unassuming and not the least bit pretentious. His work is up there with the best of our wildlife artists such as Charles Tunnicliffe and Eric Ennion. He has brought his own distinctive style and craft of printmaking to the New Naturalist series keeping them fresh and exciting.