Obituary: Remembering 103-year-old Suffolk artist Joe Lubbock
PUBLISHED: 17:03 14 February 2019
Find out about Joe's many achievements, from working on the Spitfire to hand-printing books.
A video made more than 20 years ago was called “J.G. Lubbock, Artist and Writer”. And that was true. But there was more to Joseph Lubbock than the man shown making prints in his Suffolk studio. Much more.
A Cambridge engineering graduate, he was involved in developing the nippy Spitfire fighter-plane and, with Sir Barnes Wallis, the Wellington bomber. Joe also served with the Royal Engineers as a bomb disposal expert.
He was an accomplished sailor, too. Then, after a distinguished career in engineering, Joe switched to art… in his mid-40s, and to great acclaim.
Among the settings for exhibitions of his work were the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, and Christ Church Museum in Oxford. Closer to home was the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.
Copies of his books were held at the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and on shelves from New York, Chicago and Canada to Australia, Puerto Rico and Brazil. And, apparently, in The Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Quite something – though in 2015, when he celebrated his 100th birthday, Joe flinched at the very idea of being called a polymath.
Early days… and love
Army officer’s son Joe was born in London in 1915. He remembered hearing, as a very young child, the guns “banging over the channel” during the First World War.
Much of his growing up took place in Norfolk. He first met Ruth Gurney, his wife-to-be, in the 1930s.
Both were descended from the Gurney family of Earlham Hall and Bawdeswell Hall – a dynasty of bankers and campaigners against slavery and for the welfare of the poor.
A great-aunt was prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, while Joe’s grandfather was a close friend of biologist, naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin.
Joe and Ruth’s families would occasionally meet up in Norfolk, where Ruth Gurney lived on a farm in Bawdeswell, between Fakenham and Norwich.
At dances, young Ruth thought Joseph Lubbock, who then lived in Kent, was an attractive young man. “I always thought he was rather gorgeous,” she told us nearly three years ago.
They began courting in 1940. Joe, having gained his engineering degree from Cambridge, was in the Royal Engineers and recently evacuated from France.
“My unit was on the west side of the German push and we went to Brest with the Germans in hot pursuit. From there, a Royal Navy ship took us back to England,” he told us as the couple celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in 2016.
Ruth said: “Joe came visiting. He had come back from France and thought he would like to get settled. He invited me out and I said ‘no’ the first time. I said I didn’t know him enough... that got rectified.”
Their first date was a walk up to the White Horse on Salisbury Plain, the chalk hill figure in Wiltshire.
Joe proposed at home in Kent, beneath portraits of two ancestors from the philanthropic Gurney Quaker family. “You couldn’t hang about in the war. You didn’t know if there would be a tomorrow,” said Ruth. They married in East Anglia: at Bawdeswell Church on April 28, 1941. Some guests arrived on tractors – the demands of the war restricting fuel for regular private transport.
The newly-weds had a four-day Scottish honeymoon in Faslane, north-west of Glasgow – enjoying their mutual love of the countryside and doing much walking. Joe was stationed there as part of a team of army engineers building a key base for supply ships on the River Clyde.
He also helped build a railway extension to a loch further north, to stop the chances of the Nazis ever blocking the only river route to Glasgow.
More on the war
“My role for the Spitfire was putting the thing together. Next was the Wellington bomber – doing endless calculations on how many bombs it could carry, depending on the target.
“When the Germans began dropping bombs designed to go off an hour or two after they landed, our job was to go and neutralise them. We made them ineffective with a little trick we did to the nose. I remember one going off as we approached it.”
He also helped develop a range finder that could detect bombers overhead and guide missiles to explode on impact.
At Dunkirk, his regiment became separated from the evacuation and had to wait until the Navy returned with two recovery boats, one of which never made it home.
“We had ended up just west of Dunkirk. So much so that the Germans’ tanks were between us and the part of the beach where our people were being picked up. We legged it along the north coast, where the Navy picked us up.”
The couple’s first post-war home of their own was in Maidenhead, Berkshire. They had daughters Jennie, Catherine and Lucinda. (Lucinda would, sadly, later be lost to cancer.) They also had nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren (with two more on the way).
In peacetime, Joe studied art at Heatherley’s (school of fine art) and St Martin’s (the arts and design college also in London), before returning to engineering and working on the first computers.
Off to East Anglia
Joe was living in Middlesex at that point, but he and Ruth moved to Suffolk in 1963 so he could pursue both his artistic dreams and his passion for sailing.
He had sailed on the south coast and often won Flying Fifteen races. (A Flying Fifteen is a two-person racing keelboat, with the characteristics of a dinghy, that its devotees say gives a thrilling ride.)
That wasn’t all. Joe had achieved many successes in ocean racing with boat designer and sailor Uffa Fox. He once beat the Duke of Edinburgh’s yacht to first place in their class at Cowes Week.
The next day, the headline in The Times said: “Brilliant Royal helmsman second in class at Cowes Week,” and – apparently – Joe’s victory was credited only in the final line of the story!
Ruth threw herself into local life in Waldringfield, with the Mothers’ Union and WI. She also learned French and Italian.
Their home had glorious views of woods, the River Deben and fields – things that often featured in his prints. As did Suffolk’s characteristic beaches, marshes, shingle banks and reedbeds.
The Lubbocks also had a taste for travel and adventure. Trips to uncommon destinations – such as the Antarctic, the Galapagos Islands and the Himalayas – inspired Joe’s artwork.
His career-shift was something of a leap of faith, they acknowledged in 2016 with the benefit of hindsight, but that was something they were never short of. The Church and their religious belief was important to them during their lives and their long marriage.
“I was in engineering until I suddenly got into art at about 45,” Joe said in 2015.
It was seeing a painting by Renoir at a friend’s house that had proved the turning point. “That little painting just clicked with me. I’d never had it with a work of art before. It got me going to galleries and then having a go myself.”
Joe illustrated, wrote and published 15 books featuring original prints of the natural world. They for the most part featured his designs which were etched onto copper plates. Paint was then put on them and the image printed onto paper with a hand-operated press. The process owed much to his engineering expertise.
The first book, Art and the Spiritual Life, came out in 1967. The final publication coincided with his 100th birthday in 2015. “Wings” demonstrated his love for birds, moths and butterflies – and, in fact, everything that flies.
All but the last two of his books were hand-printed at home in Waldringfield. “It was quite an effort,” says daughter Catherine. “For each book, once he’d prepared the plates, it was a long slog of printing them out.”
Joe was a little too frail to do the same for his final two books, and so they were commercially printed, featuring his original paintings and writing.
Back in 2015, the Woodbridge Deben branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies organised a 100th birthday celebration for Joe, with a lecture by Dr Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, about illuminated medieval manuscripts, which inspired his work.
Joe was also an honorary member of Suffolk Craft Society.
A man of the river
Daughter Catherine said: “As you know, he was a great sailor. His former yacht, Ondine, had been in dry dock all winter. After the funeral, we went down to the river and she’d been launched specially on that day, and covered in flags. (Thanks to Mark Barton and Waldringfield Boatyard.) It was a lovely way to end the day, somehow.”
Catherine says: “The second part of his life, when he went to Waldringfield, was really the happiest. He didn’t have a very happy childhood. He hated it at Eton. His war wasn’t too bad. Then he was in industry – lived in Hatch End (north-west London).”
She thinks he enjoyed the work, but the management of some people was trying. “When he retired to Waldringfield he was in his element, because he could sail. And, of course, a lot of it went into his books.”
Why Waldringfield? “I think Dad just loved the river and the sea.” They added to, and customised, their home. “They just loved the village life and sailing. All their friends were absolutely brilliant.”
Ruth died late in 2017. She was 100 years old. “He adored my mother. It was a very happy marriage. Seventy-six years.”
For about the last year of his life, Joe lived at Grove Court care home in Woodbridge. In his final weeks he had to go to Ipswich Hospital for treatment, but returned to Grove Court, “which he was thrilled about, because he loved it there – said how kind they were”.
Back in 2015, Ruth told us: “Soon after we married, Joe was posted to the Far East. His chances of returning were almost nil. But he came home from work one day to say he had been passed not fit to go – and now here we are, nearly 100 (as they were then).
“It’s overrated, getting old. Everything gets a bit slower – but we’ve been so lucky to have travelled to places like the Antarctic, China, Chile and right down to the Beagle Channel.
“Of all the places we have been, the one that stands out is a boat trip that ran down the Pacific coast to Mexico. Not only did we see wonderful birds but also whales that came so close alongside us that we could pat them on the nose.”
The following year, when Joe was nearing his 101st birthday and Ruth was close to 99, writer Lynne Mortimer noted all the pins stuck in a map of the globe – a chronicle of all the places to which the couple had travelled.
“We are very content,” said Ruth, then – adding that although they might disagree “we never throw things!”
She put their long and happy marriage down to “good fortune and faithfulness”. And Joe agreed: “We have always been absolutely happy,” he said.