Obituary: Willie Rodger, innovative printmaker who was a mentor to many artists

Willie Rodger
Willie Rodger
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Willie Rodger RSA RGI DUniv, mentor and artist. Born: 3 March 1930 in Kirkintilloch. Died: 3 November 2018 in Glasgow.

The death took place last week of Scottish artist Willie Rodger at the age of 88. Born in ­Kirkintilloch, Rodger spent nearly his entire life there, but his reputation and influence extended far beyond the boundaries of his native town.

Determined to become an artist at age five, when a ­fellow classmate’s drawing of a Forth and Clyde canal puffer was selected to be hung in the classroom ahead of his, ­Rodger overcame a number of setbacks throughout his career. This was dogged by periods of depression and self-doubt, yet won him many prestigious commissions and honours, and endeared him to a broad circle of friends and admirers who were drawn not only to his art but to the man.

A sympathetic principal teacher of art at Lenzie Academy, Bob Allison, turned Rodger’s otherwise unhappy school life round when he introduced him to art history.

With Allison’s support, Rodger gained admission to the Commercial Art Department of Glasgow School of Art, where he studied from 1948-52 and was awarded a post-diploma year which, by his own admission, he ­frittered away.

Under Miss Harriet ­Hanson, Ted Odling and George W ­Lennox Patterson, Rodger overcame the disappointment of failing his first year efforts at lino-cutting, to later forge his name as one of Scotland’s innovative and pre-eminent printmakers. A particular idol was Edward Bawden, whose reputation was early promoted by Douglas Percy Bliss, head of GSA during Rodger’s period there.

After his resignation from teaching in 1987, after 19 years as principal teacher of art at Clydebank High School, ­Rodger devoted himself full-time to the ­creation of his artwork and his other creative masterwork, his garden.

Even before the late Philip Reeves RSA et al founded the first artist-led printmakers’ workshops, firstly in ­Edinburgh, then Glasgow, in the mid-1960s, Rodger had spotted a gap in the market and decided that printmaking, particularly relief prints in wood and lino, would be his chosen medium.

The early purchase by the V&A’s circulation department of two prints, followed by first-time acceptances for both the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual exhibitions, gave him the ­confidence to continue.

His early efforts were, typical of their time, heavily abstract and printed using the reduction method with a resultant impasto of oil-based ink. Local buildings, still-lives and religious imagery succeeded the pure abstraction, and portraiture and figure studies ­coincided with the start of his family, following his marriage to fellow GSA graduate, the illustrator Anne Henry.

With a string of group and solo exhibitions behind him, in 1971 Rodger was awarded a three-month residency at Sussex University by the Scottish Arts Council. His award, highly unusual for not going to a professional artist, was ­supported by Bill Wright RSW then the youngest ever adviser in art for Dunbartonshire County Council, and a passionate advocate of Rodger’s work, and by J T Robertson the progressive rector at Rodger’s school who recognised the importance of the arts for a balanced education even in areas of extreme deprivation. It is telling of Rodger’s impact that right to the end a small group of his former pupils whose entry to art school he had helped achieve, retained regular contact with their former master.

Rodger, who famously printed without use of a printing press, was a very private man when at work in his attic ­studio which he created a half century ago. Nonetheless his career was rich in collaborative ­ventures. He later reflected that the things he chased eluded him, whilst many of these enterprises arose through chance encounters.

Renowned for his work ethic, Rodger designed the award-winning Scottish Historical Playing Cards in 1974 for Angus Ogilvy of the Stirling Gallery; received commissions from the Post Office through typographer Ruari MacLean CBE for an unissued set of Scottish devolution stamps (1978) and a pictorial aerogramme commemorating the Open at St Andrews (1979); and with glass painter John K Clark designed and made 11 stained glass windows, eight of which glowed with November sunlight at Rodger’s funeral service in St Mary’s Parish Church, Kirkintilloch.

Whilst his artworks have featured on numerous book jackets, Rodger provided the linocut illustrations for ­Monica Clough’s Field of Thistles (1983) and, more recently, his work illustrated Liz Lochhead’s The Colour of Black and White (2003). Lochhead, Scotland’s former Makar who formed a strong personal bond with Rodger, showed her own appreciation by including two poems inspired by him and his work in her 2016 collection Fugitive Colours.

Having exhibited at both the Edinburgh and the Glasgow Printmakers’, it was with the Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen that Rodger enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership under the infectious directorship of master printer Arthur Watson. The two proved a formidable pair and in technical terms the 100ft mural commissioned by Scotrail for Glasgow’s Exhibition Centre Station (1988) stands as testimony.

The Finnieston mural was one of a number of commissions which came Rodger’s way through Tessa Jackson OBE, in connection with Glasgow’s role as European City of Culture. The witty Glasgow Beer Mats introduced characters which Rodger would develop and exploit a ­couple of years later in his Wee Series of linocuts, which was to run to more than 100 different titles.

Elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy under the new category of printmaker in 1987, Rodger was elected full academician in 2005 when the associate rank was discontinued.

A member of the Glasgow Group alongside Ian McCulloch, Jack Knox and James Morrison in the 1970s, Rodger was elected an RGI, and in 1999 was bestowed with an honorary doctorate by the University of Stirling for his services to art in Scotland. A man of great generosity who operated below the radar, the Stirling collection boasts a large number of Rodger ­artworks subsequently gifted by the artist.

The day after his graduation, at which he addressed the crowded hall with the inspirational strapline “it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have”, Rodger underwent ­triple bypass heart surgery. His consultant, Mr Wheatley, told him he could anticipate another decade.

In the event, Rodger was to enjoy nearly twice that time, and cemented his position as a pre-eminent printmaker as well as proving himself a more than capable painter.

Martin Hopkinson, the former Keeper of Prints at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery, on learning of Rodger’s death wrote “his art was transformative for Scottish printmaking”.

First and foremost, Rodger was a faithful and loving husband to his wife Anne (the couple celebrated their diamond anniversary just a few months before he died) devoted father to Jana, Robin, Guy and Susan, and was a much loved Grampa to his ten grandchildren.

These included Matthew Herd, whose hauntingly beautiful solo saxophone rendition of Thelonious’ Monks’ jazz standard Round Midnight at Rodger’s funeral service of celebration and thanksgiving last Saturday moved the large number of family, friends, former colleagues and former pupils who, along with the outgoing president and secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, took their leave of a unique, distinctive, and much-admired man.

Robin H Rodger 
(elder son)