The sheer beauty of his drawings
I first met John Roberts in July 1976 at the City & Guilds of London Art School stoneyard. I was carving some ornament for Westminster Abbey when John appeared. He seemed shy and diffident, but explained that he had come for an interview with the then principal Roger de Grey, in order to attend the restoration and carving department. He showed me some drawings: I was hard put not to show my amazement at the sheer beauty and accomplishment of them.
We all realised that John was a prodigious talent, but there was no jealousy or competition, because in his modest way he seemed so far in advance of most of us that he was rightly regarded as a phenomenon.
As a student at the City & Guilds of London Art School (under the tutelage of Arthur Ayres) he developed his carving skills to achieve the same high standards that he had attained with his drawings. Everything he did had that trademark “John Roberts touch”, the form finely expressed to complement the beauty of the developing line and the finished article projecting its sense of rhythm and clarity of style.
He learned to be equally at home in wood, stone, lettering, restoration, new commissions, ornament or figures: skills all underpinned by his draughtsmanship. He enjoyed carpentry, a relief perhaps to be working with measurable angles rather than the journey of finding the right form.
Fellow student, City & Guilds of London Arts School 1976-78.
A self-effacing man of honesty and principle
His beautiful carvings seemed effortless, a few well chosen blows with a hammer and then a pot of green tea and a sit-down with the paper.
He was a self-effacing man of honesty and principle. One of my favourite memories of John was when an agent came to the studio to show John’s work to a prospective client, and asked, “What pieces are you planning to show at the exhibition?”John answered, Oh, anything that’s been knocking around here for ages that I want to get rid of!”
Ex-student, City & Guilds of London Art School, who shared John's workshop between 1996-2002.
He was a man you could share anything with
John shared his knowledge of art and life selflessly, and one genuinely believed that this sharing of knowledge and ideas gave him great satisfaction. John loved nature, which is reflected in his use of materials (stones, wood, clay, metal, and paper). He was a gentle man and loved nothing better than walking in nature. John was as adept at drawing, modelling and wood carving as he was at his beloved stone carving. His work was and will continue to be an inspiration.
He was a man you could share anything with: jokes, nights down the pub, thoughts and ideas, sandwiches, problems, inspirations, insights. John could be gravely serious one minute, then inanely hilarious the next. He was a deeply honest man and was just as happy talking about philosophy and spirituality, art and architecture as about his own deeply personal thoughts and feelings about life and the after-life. Much of John’s work reflects his religious and spiritual enquiry.
John had a phenomenal knowledge about Art, particularly sculpture, and shared his gifts with hundreds of people over the years as a Teacher at the City and Guilds of London Art School. His approachable and personable style made him a friend as well as a Teacher to many.
Ex-student, City & Guilds of London Art School, who shared John’s workshop between 1998- 2002
He had no idea how much he was loved
I shared John’s life for 14 years and was a student before that for three years. For periods I lived in his little flat in Putney. It was full of sculptures, casts, tools and his wonderful selection of books (mostly bought second hand) many on classical and medieval sculpture, which he would so generously lend to students.
His daily life was frugal, with his iron pots and pans and old gas cooker, his simple meals, his radio and classical records, his solitary wooden Windsor chair by the gas stove where he sat each evening (the little sitting room receiving the evening sunlight he so loved.) His bed was made of wooden pallets and beside it was his bedtime reading: piles of dusty books on Greek Sculpture, on Buddhism, on philosophy, and on Christianity by mystical thinkers.
John’s spiritual reading taught and strengthened the deep values by which he lived. His honesty (“I have nothing to hide from anyone”) was rare. His nature was kind, generous, loyal, patient and good; he was deeply sensitive. His sense of loss at being orphaned remained with him all his life and heightened a feeling of solitariness and vulnerability. His struggle to find a sense of purpose in his life and for truth and direction in his work could be dark and oppressive. John often felt alienated from the rush, confusion and values of modern living.
He loved the earth, his feet on the ground, and would often have to get out of his flat and walk along the river from Putney to Richmond. He loved walking in wild and remote hills and exploring rugged coasts, fascinated by the physical landscape, its’ geology. Caring very much about the environment and despairing at the way we treat the earth, he wanted somehow to contribute to its good. John was at the point of trying to change direction in his work to connect with this.
He loved his students and enjoyed their companionship, both in the stoneyard at the City & Guilds Art School and in his workshop. John had a quiet, dry sense of humour and would listen to people’s problems with sympathy, giving wise advice. He had no idea how much he was loved and respected.
John needed complete freedom - even a date in his diary would make him feel restricted. He had the key to my cottage in the forest in Sussex which he loved and where he eventually came to die. He would roam the downs and the cliffs and rocks, feeling by the sea the freedom of spirit he so craved when in London. John loved nature and was very gentle with animals, delighting in feeding the birds and observing them. He could whistle many of their various songs exactly!
His acceptance of death was extraordinary and inspiring. Suddenly given a few months to live, he embraced his illness with utmost dignity and patience. During his last weeks he was filled with a wonderful serenity. He regretted all the negativity he had felt and rejoiced at his life, his work, his freedom. His kind words and love touched all those who visited him.
Silvia MacRae Brown.
Student and companion 1985-2002