WHEN IN 1948 JOHN ROBERTS, then a printmaking student at the Royal College of Art, visited backstage at Bertram Mills Circus in Earl’s Court, he could not have foreseen that the experience would give his work immediate purpose and direction, and that he would find a subject to engage him for the next five decades. From pencil drawings made in a small hardback sketchbook, he developed characters and compositions that he would revisit time and again, fulfilling an enduring fascination with the costume and ritual of circus life. But it was a very particular aspect of life in and around the Big Top that attracted: the ringmaster, lion tamer, elephants and camels, trapeze act or tightrope walker never appealed. Almost exclusively he was compelled to draw the male performers—the clowns, dwarfs and tumblers—not in the ring performing, but backstage in costume and makeup preparing for, or at rest after a show. He was sensitive to their isolation and the loneliness beneath a façade of gaiety; he called it the ‘fact and fantasy’ of’ circus life.
John Vivian Roberts RE was born in Tredegar, Gwent and studied painting at Cardiff College of Art under Evan Charlton and Ceri Richards (1939-42) before serving with the South Wales Borderers and Indian Signal Corps (1942-47). His wartime drawings document life in the barrack room at Brecon training camp, daily routine aboard a troop ship in the South Atlantic Ocean, and off-duty activity at Arakan, Cairo and Burma.
Roberts went to the Royal College in 1947 originally as a student of illustration and mural decoration. He enrolled for the Saturday morning classes in etching and recalled that Professor Robert Austin PPRE ‘let it be known’ that he would be very pleased if he would consider a transfer to the Engraving School. This he did at the end of the first term. There was an immediate rapport between the two men. Austin’s enthusiasm and discipline greatly impressed Roberts, who was fortunate to have an art school education at a time when good draughtsmanship, the acquisition of skills and a regard for tradition were valued. A fellow student at the Royal College and close friend was Harry Eccleston PPRE.
Backstage (1949), which was among the first etchings drawn from the circus sketchbook, demonstrates that Roberts soon acquired a remarkable command of tone through the subtle manipulation of finely stippled and hatched etched line. With the addition of fine aquatint, sensitively burnished, this mastery reached its zenith in 1951 with Figures and Flowers, an imaginative composition drawn from a busy flower market in Majorca. An RCA Travelling Scholarship had enabled him to work in France and Spain that year. Even as a student, Roberts was drawn to outsiders, those who led unconventional lives, often on the fringes of society. In Edwin la Dell’s lithography classes he drew on London life. Caff (1949) shows a man seated in a late-night tea room, huddled over a newspaper, reading the sports page and biting on a sandwich, and in Two Loose Teeth (1949) an old woman, wearing a flower-trimmed straw hat and astrakhan overcoat, sits alone in a Fulham Bar. Spain also provided subjects to which he would return periodically—notably in his paintings, etching and lithograph of the Seller of Paper Birds, Madrid. Harry Eccleston believed that one of Roberts’ most remarkable qualities was his ‘ability to look at ideas again and again, and to bring to them new aspects to delight.’
In 1951 Roberts returned to Wales to teach at Cardiff College of Art and in 1960 took up an appointment at Liverpool Polytechnic (now John Moores University) where from 1971 until his retirement in 1983 he was principal lecturer in the Department of Graphic Design. At this time he illustrated books for major publishers: Nelson, Macmillan, BBC, Longman, Odham and Penguin— mostly natural history books that allowed him indulge a passion for wildlife, insects and landscape. In 1961 he conceived a series of prints of decorative and abstracted heads as a means to encourage students to explore the creative potential of etching for its intrinsic quality of mark, and to demonstrate that intaglio prints could involve much more than merely etched line.
To this end, Roberts employed a multiplicity of processes, incorporating impressed textures into soft ground, deep open bite, course grain aquatint and vigorous burnishing. For the first time he departed from naturalistic representation, deconstructing the head, then reassembling the features to exaggerate and distort facial topography. He also took an interest in photogravure, photo-etching and photomechanical means of making lithographs, reworking old themes such as Seller of Paper Birds (1967) and developing new, as in The Reluctant Concierge (1983).
In Liverpool Roberts came to know Arthur Pedlar (b.1932), manager of his family’s shopping mall in Southport and a part-time clown. Pedlar had worked at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, for a short time was assistant to Buster Keaton and was the first non-American to be elected President of the World Clown Association. He created many characters on stage but is best known as Vercoe, the absent-minded tramp clown, and Arturo, a continental white-faced clown with sequinned costume and a tall white hat. Roberts used Pedlar as a model over many years, drawing him in different guises, performing card tricks, playing a miniature violin and riding a unicycle.
Much of John Roberts’ work was autobiographical. The etching Novia del Toro (Bride of the Bull, 1962) tells the story of unrequited love. It presents an awkward union. He draws himself as the bull and the bride-not-to-be is his erstwhile art school sweetheart. His admiration of Goya’s work is evident. From the master he learned to use light to focus attention and illuminate depth of character. The Odd Companions series that followed also rely upon disturbing juxtapositions, this time of mannequins, plastic flowers, his daughter Cathryn’s graffiti-covered dolls and her childhood drawings. In March 1986 he wrote, ‘I have always been interested in contrasts, in the bizarre and in strange meetings between objects. 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.’ In contrast to these darkly surreal compositions, the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology commissioned Roberts in 1978 to produce six etched portraits of its academics and scientists. In 1990 the National Library of Wales staged ‘A Selection of Contemporary Portraits’, an exhibition of Roberts’ portraits of eminent Welsh men and women. The Library now holds 26 of the portraits in its permanent collection.
John Roberts was an artist of great integrity and commitment, he was active while teaching full time and despite the vagaries of artistic taste remained faithful to his convictions, exhibiting at a time when his work would have been considered by many to be outmoded. By the 1950s the market for small black and white etchings had all but dried up and consequently impressions of his etchings were only ever pulled for proofing and as required for exhibition and sale. For the most part only a handful of impressions of each exist. While occasionally an edition size was declared, no plate was ever editioned. In addition to solo exhibitions he was an active exhibiting member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Royal Cambrian Academy, the Liverpool Academy of Arts (where for many years he was Treasurer) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. In 1983, he retired to St David’s in south-west Pembrokeshire and thereafter made few prints, but he worked almost daily, in spite of increasing ill-health, producing acrylic paintings, watercolours, pastels and densely-hatched ink drawings. Once again he drew upon Arthur Pedlar’s characters, notably the maladroit auguste Vercoe. There is a pervading melancholy and poignancy in these unlucky eccentrics. In Take a Card (lithograph, 1983, etching 1989), Vercoe, wearing battered everyday clothes, forcibly engages the viewer with his direct gaze as he invites us to pick the Ace of Spades.
In his 81st year, I curated a retrospective exhibition of fifty years’ work that demonstrated Roberts’ versatility working in a wide range of graphic media. Unfortunately his deteriorating health prevented him from travelling to see the show and John Roberts died on 11 August 2003, half way through its run. Roberts was a consummate draughtsman and printmaker who was fortunate to be the product of the British art school system that believed drawing was the best means to test an artist’s powers of observation and expression. He was an artist fascinated by human nature and he responded to it in his work. A quiet and unassuming man ‘Robbie’, as students knew him, was a well-loved and respected teacher, though it was not in his nature to promote himself or his work. He exhibited regularly and his popular themes ensured that the work sold well, but it received little critical exposure and now deserves to be better known. Fortunately, these works remain as a testament to this most perceptive of artists who in his paintings and prints demonstrated a genuine empathy with the circus folk he regarded as friends, the humble sitters upon whom he bestowed an almost spiritual significance, displaying a Rembrandtesque sensitivity toward the human condition.
Aberystwyth 2004 & 2018
Robert Meyrick. ‘Odd Companions: The Prints of John Roberts RE’. Printmaking Today Vol.13, No.1, Spring 2004. pp.
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2003
School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth 2016?