Distinguished artist Joe Lubbock turns 100
- Credit: Gregg Brown
With characteristic modesty, Joe Lubbock visibly blanches at being described as a polymath – but few words can accurately get the measure of a man so revered for his countless achievements.
At 100 years old, he can look back on life as a distinguished artist, writer and innovator.
Not yet prepared to slow down, he has just published his fifteenth book, meticulously composed at home near Woodbridge, where he lives with wife of more than 70 years, Ruth.
His limited edition hand-bound books of writings and original prints of the natural world are kept in the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and in the British Library.
The Royal Library at Windsor Castle also contains his work – exclusive exhibitions of which have been held by the Victoria and Albert Museum and University of East Anglia, as well as abroad.
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But Mr Lubbock only turned his full attention to painting and writing in his 40s.
He read engineering at Cambridge, before working on early examples of computers. During the war, he helped assemble the Spitfire and, with Sir Barnes Wallis, the Wellington bomber. He also served with the Royal Engineers as a bomb disposal expert.
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“I was in engineering until I suddenly got into art at about 45,” he said. “I never seemed to have a similar job twice.
“My role for the Spitfire was putting the thing together. Next was the Wellington bomber – doing endless calculations on how many bombs in 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.”
Mr Lubbock also helped build a railway extension from Clyde – which formed the largest base of naval ships – to a loch further north, in order to prevent the enemy from blocking the only river route to Glasgow.
He was also at Dunkirk, where 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,” he said. “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.”
Mr Lubbock also helped develop a range finder that could detect bombers overhead and guide missiles to explode on impact.
It was when he saw a painting by Renoir at a friend’s house that art began to take priority. “That little painting just clicked with me,” he said. “I’d never had it with a work of art before. It got me going to galleries and then having a go myself.”
An accomplished sailor, Mr Lubbock enjoyed many successes in ocean racing with Uffa Fox and once pipped the Duke of Edinburgh’s yacht to first place in his class at Cowes Week. He recalls the following day’s headline in The Times reading: “Brilliant Royal helmsman second in class at Cowes Week,” with only the last line of the story crediting Mr Lubbock’s victory.
Of all his achievements, Mr Lubbock is most proud of meeting Ruth, in Norfolk, where both descended from the Gurney family of Earlham Hall and Bawdeswell Hall near Norwich – a line of bankers and campaigners against slavery and for the welfare of the poor. Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, was their great aunt, while Mr Lubbock’s grandfather was a close friend and associate of Charles Darwin.
Mrs Lubbock, 98, said: “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.
“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.”
Mr and Mrs Lubbock moved to Suffolk in 1963. They had three children, one who sadly died from cancer, and have nine grandchildren 13 great grandchildren.
Mr Lubbock’s work draws on the beauty of the Suffolk landscape. His travels with Ruth to remoter parts of the world, the Himalayas, Galápagos and Antarctic, have also been a great influence on his work.
Over the years, he has used his engineering know-how to design unique methods of copper plate printing.
The Woodbridge Deben branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Societies (NADFAS) is hosting a special 100th birthday celebration for Mr Lubbock today, with a special lecture by Dr Christopher de Hamel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on illuminated mediaeval manuscripts, which inspired the artist’s work.