Leslie Gilbert: Watercolourist

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The Independent Online

The artist Leslie Gilbert was born in Birches Head on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent in April 1912, the day after the Titanic went down. He belonged to Staffordshire, to what Arnold Bennett called the Five Towns, where all his working life was spent, and to the people who formed his early life in mining and in the potteries. Gilbert himself developed, however, to become a very fine painter, and at his solo exhibition in the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent in 1983, his fellow artist Reginald Haggar described him as "a master of the very English art of watercolour".

Gilbert was an only child, although his mother also took in another boy and raised him in the family. Both his grandfathers were miners, as was his father, who left the mines to open a fish-and-chip shop in Hanley. He left school at 14, but a local employer saw his entry in a drawing competition and offered him a job as an apprentice lithographic artist, making pottery transfers for a firm in Stoke-on-Trent for 10 shillings a week. Except for army service as a cartographer in the Royal Engineers during the Second World War, Gilbert stayed with this company, Ben Capper Ltd, for the rest of his working life, and rose from works manager to managing director.

In his spare time his enthusiasm for drawing led him to attend classes at Hanley Art School and in 1947 he joined the Society of Staffordshire Artists. In 1958 he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours with whom he exhibited for over 40 years. In 1958 one of his pictures was purchased by the Queen Mother at a Royal Institute show at the Mall Galleries. Aside from these group shows he had numerous solo exhibitions in Keele, Hanley and Leek.

Despite his achievements Gilbert continued to regard himself as an amateur, painting at weekends and holidays: art was hobby, pleasure and therapy all rolled into one. Along with his happy marriage, he regarded his painting as responsible for his long life and his well-being.

Having drawn flowers for pottery transfers for so much of his working life, he preferred to paint trees and landscapes, drawing them on site while inside his car – as a result the car roof was invariably streaked with paint. His favourite location was the Staffordshire Moorlands: there was a favourite patch of little birch trees in the area of Lum Edge which he returned to again and again.

However, when his wife became so ill that she needed constant care, he began to paint the flowers from his garden – he particularly liked rhododendrons – and his long years of meticulous lithographic training resulted in some of his best work.

Simon Fenwick

Leslie Gilbert, artist and businessman: born Birches Head, Stoke-on-Trent 13 April 1912; married 1938 Stella Taylor (died 2002; one daughter); died Leek, Staffordshire 5 November 2007.

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