John Roberts

Artist haunted by the imagery of childhood
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The Independent Online

John Vivian Roberts, artist and teacher: born Tredegar, Monmouthshire 26 January 1923; Principal Lecturer in Print-making and Illustration, Liverpool Polytechnic 1960-83; married 1955 Gwen Thomas (deceased; one son, one daughter); died Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 11 August 2003.

The strange and disturbing imagery of childhood haunted the creative imagination of the artist John Roberts. In his work circuses, clowns, mannequins and costumed figures become alive and act out their own stories.

"I have always been interested in contrasts, in the bizarre and in strange meetings between objects," Roberts wrote in 1986. "When a picture assumes its own identity, as if by magic a small new world is born. That is the excitement of making something that never was." His "strange meetings" were created in a variety of media, particularly etching and watercolour; they included a surreal series of three-dimensional works called the Odd Companions created in the 1960s and 1970s out of dolls which had belonged to his daughter, Cath, and been drawn by her.

Roberts was born in 1923 in Tredegar, Monmouthshire, the only child of a draper and outfitter. At the age of seven he moved to Cardiff where he was educated at Cathays High School and, from 1939 to 1942, at the Cardiff School of Art. His military service was spent in India and Burma with the South Wales Borderers and Indian Signal Corps from 1942 to 1947.

At the end of the Second World War Roberts went to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art, where he studied etching and engraving under Robert Austin and lithography under Edward la Dell. He was particularly influenced by Austin, the Head of the Engraving School and one of the most eminent British engravers of the 20th century; his teaching - which emphasised the importance of draughtsmanship - left a deep impression on Roberts.

From the Royal College he won a travelling scholarship which he used to go to France and Spain in 1950 and 1951. On his return he taught at the Cardiff School of Art and then at Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University), where he was Principal Lecturer in Print-making and Illustration for 23 years.

Roberts was a short man, dark-haired, bespectacled - and attractive to women. He loved to socialise, especially in a pub where he could sit and talk, enthusing about art over a pint, a cigarette in his hand. This natural warmth made Roberts an immensely gifted teacher. At a time when teaching in art schools was formal and restricted, he took a genuine interest in his students and was keen to inspire them to develop their abilities.

In the 1960s he himself started to do abstract work which involved a number of intaglio processes because he wanted to demonstrate that etching can be so much more than line. It was a period when students from Hornsey College of Art were touring Britain's art schools, encouraging demonstrations and sit-ins to protest against their teachers, but since at Liverpool Roberts already supported the use of art as self-expression it was difficult to rebel against him. Many of his students stayed in touch long after they had graduated.

On his retirement he moved to the village city of St David's in Pembrokeshire, where he had spent his childhood holidays; his wife died only 18 months afterwards.

Roberts worked extensively as a book illustrator, his output including a number of children's books for Penguin. He was a member of the Royal Watercolour Society, the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, the Royal Cambrian Academy and the Liverpool Academy of Arts, where for many years he was Treasurer.

He exhibited widely and held a number of one-man exhibitions. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Wales (for whom in 1978 he was commissioned to do a series of 50 etched portraits of famous Welsh people), the Welsh Arts Council, Newport Art Gallery, Liverpool University, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth, and the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, which earlier this year received a V&A/Resource grant to purchase 20 of his works.

A retrospective touring exhibition of John Roberts's work, including five decades of etchings, lithographs, drawings and watercolours, closed on Friday at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

Simon Fenwick