Obituary: Robin Spark, artist

Samuel Robin Spark, well -known member of Edinburgh's Jewish community and renowned artist. Picture: Robert Perry
Samuel Robin Spark, well -known member of Edinburgh's Jewish community and renowned artist. Picture: Robert Perry
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Born: 9 July 1938 In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Died: 6 August 2016 in Edinburgh.

Robin Spark who has died aged 78 was a well-known Scottish artist and member of Edinburgh’s Jewish community. Although he had a lifelong interest in art, he was in his 40s before he began following it as a career path.

An accomplished Israeli artist, Udi Merioz,whose family owned the Blue and White Gallery in Old Jerusalem,studied at Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1970s and became friendly with Robin,lodging with him at one stage in his flat in Bruntsfield,Edinburgh.He encouraged Robin to pursue his interest in art and advised him on various aspects including compilation of a portfolio.That led to Robin following in his mentor’s footsteps and beginning studies in Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh Art College in 1983,graduating four years later with a highly creditable upper 2nd Class Honours Degree,narrowly missing a 1st.Thereafter art was his ruling passion in life.

He was the son of famous writer Muriel Spark and her then husband Sydney Spark.Born in the Lady Rodwell Nursing Home in Bulawayo,Southern Rhodesia,now Zimbabwe,his early years were difficult.His parents separated soon after his birth before divorcing. Initially Robin lived with his mother at different locations,at one stage in very basic circumstances in rural Gwelo without electricity or water. She determined to return to the U.K. and placed him aged four in a Dominican Convent Boarding School there while she planned her way back via South Africa,doing so in 1944.His father who remained in Rhodesia was unable to look after him through ill health.

While at the school he befriended a boy called Robin, whose parents,of Dutch descent, were very kind to him and with whom he stayed occasionally during holidays.He liked this boy and his family so much that he decided from then on to call himself Robin and abandon his birth name of Samuel.

With War over,Robin came by ship to Liverpool in September 1945,his first time on British soil.His mother, who was pursuing her own life and career in London, arranged for Robin to be brought up in Edinburgh by her parents,Bernard and Sarah Camberg. That month he joined them in their Bruntsfield flat where he would live for the rest of his life.

Robin enjoyed a warm and supportive relationship with his grandparents who he described as open minded and sociable-”life there was never dull.”His grandmother was artistic and his grandfather,an engineer in a nearby factory, enjoyed football and horse racing. Robin’s maternal and paternal forebears were Jewish, originating from Lithuania,grandfather Bernard one of the first British-born generation. Paternal grandfather Samuel Spark had escaped from Russia after being conscripted into the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s,the samovar he brought with him one of his grandson’s favourite items. In that environment, Robin embraced Judaism,celebrating his Barmitzvah in 1952 in the Balmoral Restaurant in Princes Street. This became a very important and fulfilling part of his life and he was a regular member of the congregation at Edinburgh’s Synagogue.

Given his childhood circumstances, relationships with his mother had been rather volatile but later became fractured over her claims that her mother Sarah was not fully Jewish which Robin strongly refuted and led to a well publicised dispute.

He attended James Gillespie’s primary school and then Daniel Stewart’s College till aged 16 after which he worked for some years in the jewellery retail trade in Edinburgh,interrupted by National Service in the Medical Corps.He obtained his ‘Highers’ through night classes enabling him to join the Civil Service where he remained for about 20 years in a number of capacities, including Scottish Office duties and latterly as Chief Clerk to the Scottish Law Commission.

A sense of vocation increasingly beckoned him towards art and he was delighted to graduate in 1987 to become a full time artist. Undertaking a definitive career change at that age called for much determination and courage. He felt he benefitted from being a ‘mature student’ and thoroughly enjoyed his studies. In the succeeding years he completed more than 1,000 paintings and hosted numerous exhibitions of his work,examples of which were also shown as far afield as Israel, USA,London and Argentina. Here he exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy,had work in the National Portrait Gallery and figured in a number of private collections.

He considered his painting as a form of expression,both figurative and abstract,through which he sought to portray positive aspects of humanity,hoping that his paintings “uplifted and touched the soul.”His main influences were his rich Jewish culture while artists he admired included Van Gogh, Cezanne, Chagall and the Pissarros. A highly successful retrospective exhibition of his work was held only last month in Edinburgh where the centrepiece was his large painting, ’The Succot,’the Jewish harvest festival,a favourite of his. Despite considerable infirmity, Robin bravely attended the opening and with characteristic generosity donated part of the proceeds to Alzheimer’s research. As well as painting, he did photography and printmaking and was an accomplished art teacher at evening and private classes.

A Bruntsfield resident almost all his life, he was a well integrated,well known and well liked member of the local community. Engaging, with a dash of ‘old world’ charm,Robin was interested in people and their lives. He enjoyed a quirky sense of infectious humour as well as an occasional quality whisky. An animal lover, he had a number of cats and dogs to whom he was very attached. Literature and cinema were other interests. In 2014 he married Anthea whom he had known for some years and by whom he is survived.