Gibbings, Robert John (1889–1958), engraver, illustrator, and author, was born 23 March 1889 in Co. Cork, son of the Rev. Edward Gibbings, rector of Carrigrohane, and Caroline Gibbings (née Day). He was educated at boarding schools in Fermoy and Cork before entering UCC as a medical student (1906). While engaged in his medical studies he also studied art in his spare time and, in the 1909/10 academic year, registered for both arts and medicine. He abandoned his university studies in 1911 and travelled to London, where he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Deciding to concentrate on wood engraving, he exhibited a bookplate at the Royal Hibernian Academy (1913).
At the beginning of the first world war he volunteered for service and was commissioned into the 4th Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was present at the Gallipoli landings (April 1915), where he was wounded, and later served in Salonika and Palestine. In 1917 he was stationed at Bear Island, Co. Cork, and carried out artistic commissions for UCC and the Old Corkonian Club. He was invalided out of the army in March 1918 with the rank of captain. Continually sketching and drawing throughout his military service, he completed several works based on his war experiences, including ‘City walls’, ‘Salonika’ and ‘The retreat from Serbia’. In 1919 he returned to London, where the Imperial War Museum commissioned an oil painting, ‘Gallipoli: sunset over Lemnos, HMS Triumph and HMS Swiftsure’.
Gibbings was a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers (1920); his first commission to illustrate a book, Samuel Butler's Erewhon, came in 1923. In the following year he took over Golden Cockerel Press, serving as the company's director (1924–33). This gave him the opportunity to publish and illustrate his own work. In 1929 he travelled to Tahiti, a journey that resulted in the publication of Iorana (1932), his first travel book. He made a memorable expedition to the West Indies and the Red Sea in 1937 where, using primitive diving apparatus, he made underwater sketches of marine life. The results were published in Blue angels and whales (1938). Alongside such work, he also worked as a lecturer in book-production and engraving at the Reading School of Art (1936–42). He was conferred with an honorary MA from UCC (1938). Two years later he published Sweet Thames run softly, one of his most popular travel books. Further books based on his river journeys followed, including Coming down the Wye (1942) and Lovely is the Lee (1945), which became a book-of-the-month in the United States. A final visit to the South Seas resulted in Over the reefs (1948). Further publications and exhibitions followed and he was elected ARHA (1951). In 1955, after periods spent living in Cork, Dublin, and London, he moved to Long Wittenham, Berkshire, where he wrote and illustrated his final book, Till I end my song (1957). He died 19 January 1958 at the Churchill Hospital, Headington, Oxford, and was buried in Long Wittenham churchyard. A memorial exhibition of his work was held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1960.
Gibbings married first Mary Pennefather; they had three sons and one daughter. With his second wife, Elisabeth Empson, he had one son and two daughters. There are collections of his work in galleries all over the world: the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in his native Cork has a large collection of his engravings, and there are collections in the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, the Auckland City Art Gallery, and the Harvard University Art Museums. The largest collection of his engravings is held in the Reading Museum and Art Gallery. The Reading School of Art holds a substantial collection of his papers.