The final cut - Robert Sellar, 1920-2010

I lost an old friend this week, as the celebrated artist Robert Sellar (right) passed away at the age of 90. His loss puts out a light that has shone brightly for many years.

I met Robert almost as soon as I joined the staff at Flowerfield Arts Centre in 2004. To celebrate the re-opening of the centre after major refurbishment, Robert had donated a copy of every one of his prints to the centre, to be retained as The Robert Sellar Collection. It was an act of huge kindness.

To be honest, I was having a hard time adjusting to the new job. I’d left newspapers, and a world in which everything had to be done right now, to join a world where things might need to be considered for a week or two before action was needed. I had a real struggle making plans for anything that would happen further ahead than next Wednesday.

One morning, about two weeks in, my line manager Malcolm placed a bulky folder on my desk, and said that Coleraine Borough Arts Committee had agreed to fund the Robert Sellar Collection – to have all of the prints professionally mounted and framed and an exhibition put together, complete with a catalogue. My task was to make it happen – seek quotes from framers, printers and designers and make the decisions. And to interview Robert, write the brochure copy and see the whole thing through to completion.

It proved to be my salvation at that time – a project to get involved in while we waited for the building work to be finished. I remember opening the folder and immediately falling in love with the work. Robert was a master printmaker, working in woodcut and linocut, turning out work of incredible precision and style. The best of the work had a nostalgic feel – I had no background in art history, and it just reminded me more than anything else of book illustrations from my childhood. It all seemed wonderfully contained somehow, beautifully composed and perfectly in its own world.

His religious works interested me less, but I know how important they were to him – stained glass windows and illuminations of Bible verses and such. My favourites were the landscapes, illustrations of flora, street scenes and the like.

Putting the exhibition together involved many long interviews with Robert at his home in Castlerock. That was often a longer-than-usual assignation – hours would go by as he adjusted the copy, line by line. This pushed all kinds of buttons for me – only six months before, I would have proof read and edited the copy in a blur of blue pencil, and started typing. Robert had a relaxed approach to urgency, and the catalogue copy went through draft after draft, with literally thousands of corrections and additions before we agreed it for sending to the designer.

The hanging of the exhibition was similarly painstaking. Robert wanted the pictures to unfold like a journey, so they were separated into sections to match the catalogue copy and reflect the major concerns of his life.

Having said all that, we got it right, and when the exhibition opened as part of our festival that year, it was an unqualified success. It sparked a revival of interest in Robert’s work and I hope he and his wife Roberta made a good income from sales of the prints – I know I bought many copies as gifts for friends and relatives, and Andrea and I have three of Robert’s prints in our own collection.

Over 70 works of all descriptions are now in the ownership of Flowerfield Arts Centre, as part of the centre’s permanent collection, and they’re a major testimony to a life of dedication and skilled work.

This is work that endures – a reminder that good art will always outlive the artist, and that’s as it should be, and exactly as Robert would have wanted it. I can’t help thinking that he had this thought in mind as he worked on every one of these pieces, copies of which are now in collections all over the world.

His work is also preserved in stained glass windows in Castlerock Presbyterian Church, where he worshipped for many years. And that serves as an apt use of his gift – allowing his work to illuminate the subject - and let the light through at the same time.