There are two letters from Richard Robbins to Ruth Borchard, dated 1964, sent from Highbury Hill, north London. His self-portrait was probably painted during the years immediately before then. Born in 1927, the only son of the great economist Lionel, Lord Robbins, he would have been in his mid-thirties. In his jauntily placed straw hat, open-necked shirt and blue fisherman-type jersey, he looks the epitome of a late nineteenth-century artist, or perhaps 1920s bohemian painter, en plein air – appearing quizzically independent by nature, with a somewhat sadly searching air about him. The light-infused palette and the fresh brushwork show what Roger Plant has described as Robbins’ ‘awareness of both Cézanne’s values and of the humanist tradition… leading from Titian and Rubens to Délacroix and Cézanne’.
In 1945, aged seventeen, he joined the Army. In an Independent obituary (26.8.09.), Patrick Shovelton wrote that Robbins ‘was posted to the 21st Field Regiment… [which] having fought its way through Italy, was enjoying itself in Italy. Richard’s first posting was as a sentry – “doorkeeper”, as he described it – at the Danieli Hotel, then an Officer’s Club. Bored with this he applied for a Commission but was surprisingly turned down. Robbins always maintained it was due to a shocking lecture he had given to the troops about Picasso.’
Demobbed in 1948, he went to study English at New College, Oxford, going on to study painting part-time at Goldsmith’s College, London, and then at the Slade School of Fine Art, where his tutor was his uncle Clive Gardiner. From 1952-71 he was a part-time art school teacher in London before teaching full-time at Hornsey/Middlesex University, retiring in 1993 as an honorary fine art professor.
What Robbins wrote about his later sculptures applies equally to his paintings: ‘My sculpture is figurative but I hope not without abstract harmonies.’ A 1984 seascape shows numinous colour variations, as vibrant pink sky is reflected in a tawnier pink sea. Highgate Ponds under Snow are succinctly represented, in a 1986 painting of that title, in ‘abstract harmonies’ of icy whites and blues, muted yellows and greens. A series of 1990s paintings, each in a distinct palette, shows what at first appear to be kinetic abstract shapes in a kind of dance or flight: a second glance reveals that these forms represent seagulls.