Dick Gilbert: Painter inspired by the landscape and coastline of Cornwall
Thursday 19 March 2009
The painter Dick Gilbert belonged to a coterie of Cornish-born and -bred artists who proved a visually distinctive minority within the mid-century St Ives "school". These included Peter Lanyon, Michael Canney, Margo Maeckelberghe, the potter William Marshall and before them the naive painters Alfred Wallis and Mary Jewels. Though the irresistible Cornish landscape and haunting genius loci provided overriding source material for virtually all Cornish modern artists it is not easy to identify a single or coherent stylistic complexion unique to this native enclave other than an emotional and frequently expressive semi-abstract landscape painting and an improvisatory or makeshift approach to the materials closest to hand.
Dick Gilbert was born in 1935 in Hayle, Cornwall, on the north, Godrevy side of St Ives Bay. He attended the local Bodriggy school where schoolboy exploits included playing rugby competitively, winning a swimming trophy and acting as patrol leader for the Hayle scout troop where his passion for hiking and exploring took root.
Like his lodestar, the revered Peter Lanyon, Gilbert joined the RAF where two years' national service led to the rank Leading Aircraftman. During this time Gilbert's artistic leanings came to the fore and when he returned home in the mid-1950s the local St Ives art colony, led by the internationally established artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, was in its heyday.
The close community of artists was centred on the Penwith Society which offered sanctuary of a social and professional kind for artists in frequently impecunious circumstances. Gilbert became a full exhibiting member and also enjoyed solo exhibitions in the capital at Denis Bowen's New Vision Centre Gallery in Marble Arch and at the Rawlinsky Gallery during the 1960s. He briefly attended the Regent Street Poly, but was essentially self-taught, his gestural paint-handling, wild and energetic use of charcoal and general informalism linked to naturalism.
Despite its abstraction this informalism never lost sight of site-specific strips of the Cornish coastline. The unmistakable topography of Hayle and Gwithian dunes stretching to Godrevy lighthouse recurred throughout an oeuvre in which energetic and spontaneous paint movements conjured the passing clouds, fugitive light, changing sea conditions or bird flights. His "Bird Flight Down a Valley" (1970) related to his observations of migrating birds above his beloved Gwithian dunes and emulated Lanyon's vision of landscape as a vital and changing phenomenon. In 1967 he told the journal Cornish Review: "Cornish landscape exhibits a constantly changing occurrence, it has a large visual depth or distance, you can see a lot of land relative to sky, whereas in other counties the visual depth is small."
Despite his modest successes within an artistically distinguished milieu, Gilbert needed to support himself with a variety of jobs among them farm labourer, postman, lorry driver. He was also, during the late 1960s, what the Penzance gallery owner Martin Val Baker later described as "the charismatic head waiter" of the popular Harbour Restaurant in St Ives. Val Baker's father, Denys, the novelist and editor of Cornish Review, portrayed Gilbert in the 1967 article as a committed painter with a wife, Jane, and two daughters.
Something, however, had to give between the necessity of supporting a family and giving undivided attention to painting. During the early 1980s, therefore, he left Cornwall and trained under Walter Carrington at the Holland Park Alexander Technique School. Subsequently Gilbert taught and administered the Alexander Technique in Norway, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Estonia as well as London. In 1990 he married a fellow practitioner, Tuula Paavola, his fourth wife, and moved to Finland. Here Gilbert was Head of the AT Institute of Finland throughout the 1990s and conducted training courses at Helsinki University and other institutes.
After his divorce in 1997, Gilbert returned to Cornwall, where he re-established his links with the local art scene, living in a wood house at Gwithian Towans and exhibiting once again at the Penwith, at the Belgrave Gallery, St Ives and at the Katharine House Gallery in Marlborough, Wiltshire. His career had in a sense come full circle, this popular and warm character having followed his own distinctive path.
Dick Gilbert, painter and Alexander Technique practitioner: born Hayle, Cornwall 7 July 1935; married four times (three daughters); died Hayle 22 December 2008.
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