Peter Forster obituary

Other lives: Wood engraver, illustrator and print maker whose work was characterised by an irreverent sense of humour

My partner, Peter Forster, who has died aged 86, was one of the leading British wood engravers of the last 50 years. He was a maverick in a rather traditional medium – his work was characterised by a satirical and irreverent sense of humour and he often used colour when monochrome was the norm.

Born in Fulham, the first child of Mabel (nee Fairy) and Harold Forster, Peter had a peripatetic childhood as his RAF officer father was moved often. Following Bedford Modern school, he studied at Luton School of Art, where he learned wood engraving under Mary Maddick, and then (with the support of John Piper) at the Ruskin School in Oxford. His national service followed with the RAF.

Peter then taught art for an unhappy year at Bedford school – he and the headmaster agreed on only one thing: he was not cut out for teaching. Freelance book illustration followed. In the days before 1967 he was involved with gay liberation in one form or another.

In 1964, lured by the prospect of financial security, he took a job designing guide books in the Department of the Environment (Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings). An uncomfortable square peg in the civil service, he returned to freelance work in 1985 as a wood engraver and print maker. He had an abiding love of literature, and the Folio Society publishing company offered him the freedom to express this by illustrating a series of works including plays by Shakespeare and other classics, of which Wuthering Heights and Romola showed him at his peak.

Peter Forster’s wood engraving of the Queen, from his 1983 series Britannic Majesty, depicting members of the royal family as mythical creatures
Peter Forster’s wood engraving of the Queen, from his 1983 series Britannic Majesty, depicting members of the royal family as mythical creatures Photograph: FAMILY PHOTO

Peter also had a great interest in Oscar Wilde, leading him to edit and illustrate an edition of De Profundis for the Folio Society in 1991. He was able to study the fragile original manuscript thanks to the help of his friend Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson). There were also illustrations for The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Among Peter’s other colour prints was the series A New Temple of British Worthies, which included Florence Nightingale, the Queen Mother, Charles I and Jane Austen. The BBC made a film of him at work on a print of Lord Reith (as a stag) that was broadcast in the mid 1980s. In the last 20 years his focus shifted from wood engraving to watercolours, both abstract and pictorial.

Despite being shy, he had a gift for friendship. In 2007 he met a young biochemical engineer, Pedro Lebre, whose friendship became a major feature of our lives until Peter’s death.

Peter was a keen cyclist. He would take his bicycle to visit churches and other historic buildings. In his essay Portrait of the Wood Engraver in Middle Age, he wrote, “I do not believe in the life to come but know that opening the south door of a village church and stepping down into the cool, whitewashed interior is one of the sweetest things in life, a sensation unchanged since schooldays; the experience of the life that was.”

Peter and I met in 1973 and we entered into a civil partnership in 2006, one of the first to be registered in Hackney in east London. He is survived by me and by his sister Ros.

Hugh White

The GuardianTramp

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