Richard Robbins: Painter and sculptor who loved teaching and spent 33 years at Hornsey School of Art

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The Independent Online

Richard Robbins was an enigma. In appearance he looked every inch the painter. His clothes were unconventional, his hair flopped over his face but one look at the hands would have told you this was a man used to physical work. He was a painter, and a very good one too, but he loved sculpture and working with his hands. Most men who are as good at painting and sculpture as Robbins was are unlikely also to hold a blue in golf from Oxford – but he did.

Richard Robbins was the only son of Lord Robbins, the great economist. As a result Richard was an "honourable" – a title he hated and never used. He inherited none of his father's great analytic brain, instead taking pride in a fourth from Oxford – and knowing from a very early age that he wanted to be a painter. He was born in 1927 into a moneyed and cultured household. When Richard expressed the wish at the age of seven that "I want to be a painter", his father sent him to Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire which was supposed to be particularly good for boys interested in art. Coming out, aged 17, in 1945. he prematurely joined the Army – not the action of the usual 17-year-old determined to be an artist. He applied for the Gunners, where his father had also served, but was posted to the 21st Field Regiment.

The regiment, having fought its way through Italy, was enjoying itself in Venice. Richard's first posting was as a sentry – "doorkeeper", as he described it – at the Danielli Hotel, then an Officer's Club. Bored with this he applied for a Commission but was surprisingly turned down. Robbins always maintained it was due to a shocking lecture he had given to the troops about Picasso.

Despite being turned down to become an officer Robbins was nevertheless in demand as a golf partner – particularly when the officers discovered that he played off a handicap of one; no doubt he helped them win many a wager on the course. He was demobbed in 1948 and went straight to Oxford (New College) where the Oxford University Golfing Society welcomed him. He played for the winning side against Cambridge in 1950 at Royal Lytham St Anne's, winning both his matches.

His academic studies were less successful. He read English Literature under John Bayley but his heart was never in it. On leaving Oxford Robbins went first to Goldsmith's to study art and then to the Slade. As well as being a talented artist specialising in drawing, painting and sculpture, Robbins loved teaching. Throughout his life he successfully combined his own love of being an artist himself with the pleasure he took from a career in teaching, first at Belmont, then Camberwell and finally at Hornsey School of Art, which became part of Middlesex University in 1960. Altogether he taught at Hornsey for 33 years, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1993.

Robbins' own work showed a fine understanding of the world around him. The way he put it was: "we all look at life through the eyes of imagination. Response in different ways is inevitable. Those of us who find a need to make of our experience, emotions and ideas in some form, are artists; life, the world, existence, our muse." He produced paintings and sculpture which was exhibited throughout the UK and in Singapore and Japan. He was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 2004.

As well as being a fine artist Robbins was an exceptionally kind man. He had that extraordinary nature that encompassed being patient and supportive to those he admired and loved and being quite irascible to those he found annoying. He was never satisfied and always felt he could improve whether by making another new putter to bring down his golf score or through his relentless wish to achieve perfection as an artist. His bronzes of the rugby scrum and the line-out, sponsored by Nigel Ray, the rugby enthusiast, were astounding.

The great tragedy in his life was the death of one of his sons; Robbins developed as a result a lifelong interest in schizophrenia and the work of SANE.

Patrick Shovelton

Professor the Hon. Richard Robbins, artist: born 12 July 1927; married firstly Wendy Dobbs (two sons), secondly Brenda Roberts (four stepsons); died 28 July 2009.

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