In 1970, when the RSPB asked the bird artist Robert Gillmor, who has died aged 85, to design their new logo, the species they chose was the avocet. Following a century’s absence, this elegant wader had successfully returned to the UK, to breed on several RSPB reserves.
But, as Robert explained many years later, there was another reason why the avocet was preferred over more common and familiar birds, such as the robin or blue tit. It was black and white, which meant that it could be easily reproduced in the days when colour printing was both expensive and impractical.
That emphasis – on the way art is used in the real world – sums up Robert’s life and work. His artwork is striking, beautiful and distinctive; yet it has always been defined by where it appeared. He was, above all, a very public artist: his output adorning the covers of the RSPB’s Birds magazine, gracing the dustjackets of dozens of books, and appearing, in miniature, on several series of stamps.
But it was his varied and vivid designs, from 1985 onwards, for the covers of the Collins New Naturalist books, widely acknowledged as the most significant natural history series ever published, that were among his greatest accomplishments.
This was a daunting task: Robert took over from the original cover artists, husband-and-wife team Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, whose designs had played a major part in the series’ commercial and critical success. Yet the publishers need not have worried: Robert’s covers were classic, but with a modern twist; he ultimately produced more than 70 unique and colourful dustjackets – even more than his distinguished predecessors.
Robert was, perhaps, destined to make a living from his art. His maternal grandfather, Allen W Seaby, was one of the finest bird painters of the first half of the 20th century, and professor of fine art at Reading University. As a sickly child, Robert often missed school; while absent, he would spend many happy hours watching his grandfather at work in his studio.
By the time the teenage Robert’s interest in art began to develop, Seaby was in his 80s. Nevertheless, shortly before his grandfather’s death, they collaborated on illustrations for two of the famous Ladybird children’s books on British birds. Seaby also gave him his first optical aid – an ancient monocular – which Robert soon supplemented with a brass telescope. He then persuaded his parents to buy his first bird book: a lavish volume costing two guineas, illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe.
Born in Reading, Berkshire, Robert lived in the same tree-lined avenue until he was 62 years old. He was the younger of two brothers; their father, Gerald, was an accountant, while their mother, Mildred (nee Seaby), worked for her brother’s antique coin dealership.
Robert’s early interest in wildlife art was encouraged by the teachers at Leighton Park school, although he later described his school career – art aside – as “pretty hopeless”.
At the age of 13, he was elected as the first ever junior member of Reading Ornithological Club, ultimately becoming its life president. He also served on the councils of the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and British Ornithologists’ Union; later, in recognition of his long and devoted service, each of these organisations awarded him their most prestigious medal.
After leaving school, Robert studied at his grandfather’s former department at Reading University, obtaining a national diploma in design in 1958, and his teaching diploma the following year. He then returned to teach at Leighton Park, as head of art and craft, until 1965, when he left to become a full-time artist.
In 1960, he and fellow artist Eric Ennion had organised an exhibition of contemporary bird paintings at Reading Art Gallery, which then toured other venues to great acclaim. Four years later, spurred on by this success, they co-founded the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA), which would have a crucial and lasting influence on the development of nature-based art.
Robert was the driving force of the SWLA for more than half a century, until ill-health intervened, and was the only artist whose work has appeared every year since that first exhibition. Throughout his life, he would offer advice to young and up-and-coming wildlife artists, many of whom he inspired to forge successful careers in the field.
For 30 years, from the early 1970s onwards, Robert was the art editor of the authoritative, nine-volume handbook The Birds of the Western Palearctic. He painted some plates himself but, with typical generosity, mainly commissioned his fellow artists to do so.
He was also a regular fixture in the art marquee at Birdfair, the British birdwatching fair in Rutland, and also designed many of its programme covers, which provided a shop window for the global conservation projects funded by this annual event.
In 1998 Robert and his wife, Susan (nee Norman), a fellow artist whom he had married in 1974, moved to the north Norfolk village of Cley. Over the following two decades, he continued to create a prodigious output of paintings, prints, linocuts and drawings – each one instantly recognisable as a “Gillmor” – and many of which were displayed at the nearby Pinkfoot and Birdscapes galleries. He would also spend time in the hides at Cley Marshes, quietly sketching birds, to the delight of the other visitors.
In 2010, Robert was approached by the Royal Mail to design a series of postage stamps featuring British birds, eventually producing no fewer than 36 designs. Afterwards, the original linocuts were sold, part of the proceeds going to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
In recognition of his lifetime’s achievements, in 2015 this kind, inspirational and deeply modest man was appointed MBE.
He is survived by Susan, his children, Emily and Thomas, and his grandchildren, Jude, Amy, Angus and Isabelle. His brother, Philip, predeceased him.
• Robert Allen Fitzwilliam Gillmor, bird artist, born 6 July 1936; died 8 May 2022