I’ve owned this book for years, but have come to it only now. I suppose I neglected Gibbings because he didn’t fit at all into the modernist, avant-garde world in which I’ve been immersed (entangled) for so many years.
But Robert Gibbings (1889-1958) is a really fascinating character, and the more you find out about him, the more absorbing his life and works become. He was best known at first—and probably still is—as a wood engraver. But he was also a sculptor and, eventually, a graceful, insightful, and infectious writer—who came to writing rather late.
Born in Cork, Ireland, Gibbings attended the Slade School of Art in London, grew passionate about engraving and printmaking, and became a founding member of England’s Society of Wood Engravers in 1920. Three years later, he was commissioned to make a suite of wood engravings for the famous, highly respected Golden Cockerel Press (The Lives of Gallant Ladies) which, in 1924, he purchased, settling down in that illustrious press to publish 71 titles—which included an exquisite edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (in 4 volumes, 1929-31). Hit hard during the depression years, howeve (even bibliophiles were unable to afford to purchase Golden Cockerel volumes), Gibbings sold the press (in 1933) and became a freelance illustrator and writer, traveling widely (he loved the sea) until 1936, when he secured a part-time teaching position at Reading University teaching (who better?) book production, typography and illustration.
“In the early days of 1939,” Gibbings wrote, “there arose in me a great desire to find peace beside a river.” It was an entirely reasonable desire in 1939. He nourished that desire with—a greatly gifted man!—the building of a boat (the Willow) and setting off in her to drift down the Thames, drawing and writing as he went. The happy result was his very popular book, Sweet Thames Run Softly. Wikipedia notes—with a graceful urgency unusual for Wikipedia—that the book, “written at a time of great insecurity…captivated readers, acutely aware that the world it portrayed was imminent danger of being wiped out.”
Sweet Thames was followed by two more “river books,” Coming Down the Wye (1942) and Lovely is the Lee in 1945.
Lovely is the Lee is wholly delightful, both to read and (because of Gibbings’ engravings) to look at. It’s a wandering, wanderer’s book, a journey through Gibbings’ native Ireland, beginning in Galway and ending in Cork (his birthplace) on the river Lee, a journey luxuriously slow to unfold, full of tiny perfect observations, the warmth of sudden hospitality and spontaneous friendship. But the book is not all restful pastoralism; it is quite often gripping in its brilliant, harrowing descriptions of the furies of the sea and way the Irish fishermen (whom Gibbings so frequently accompanies) contend with it. There is a lot of really superb marine writing here (no wonder Gibbings enjoyed illustrating Herman Melville’s Typee). The book is also full of astonishing ghost stories, worthy of a Walter de la Mare (except that Gibbings hair-raising tales are all dutifully reported a true).
I was enthralled from the first few paragraphs on. Here, in Chapter 1, is Gibbings, only just arrived in Galway, in the bar of the Royal Hotel. He has quickly acquired new companions:
“Them as looks down their noses don’t see far beyond it,” said Laffin.
“And he’s never in the same place two days—walls, walks, walks,” said Jimmy.
“Might as well tell a swallow not to travel,” said Laffin.
“Every man to his trade,” said Jimmy.
“There’s a deal of difference between selling bad eggs and cooking them,” said Laffin. “Now will ye all stop talking and listen to me for one moment!” he continued. “One would think that the lot of you had been vaccinated with gramphone needles. Listen to me, now!”
And you really want to.