Rodger - Willie Rodger by Susan Breakenridge

Photograph by Susan Breakenridge

Willie Rodger, RSA, RGI DUniv

Artist and teacher

Born: 3 March 1930 :  Died: 3 November 2018

Willie Rodger, who has died at the age of 88, was a quietly influential force in the Scottish art world and in art education throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Never a man to trumpet his own talent, yet sure of his skill as one of Scotland’s pre-eminent master printmakers, he led by example; inspiring generations of pupils at Clydebank High School and elsewhere across West Dunbartonshire to pursue careers in the creative arts.

Apart from a brief and unhappy spell in London after he left the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) in 1953, Willie lived in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire all his life. His funeral was held last Saturday in the town’s St Mary’s Parish Church. The congregation was surrounded by Willie’s work in the shape of eight stained glass windows which he made between 1986 and 1992 in collaboration with glass painter, John K Clark. Half a dozen small windows, The Six Days of Creation, were designed and gifted by him in memory of his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, who were active members of the church.

He also designed and made a special lino-cut of St Patrick to mark the opening by Cardinal Tom Winning of St Patrick’s Primary School in Crosslet Road, Dumbarton.

William Gilmour Whitecross Rodger was born in Kirkintilloch in 1930 to Robert and Elizabeth Rodger. He was their second child; a sister, Jenty, was born in 1925. His father, a pawnbroker, was 53 when he was born and in his later years Willie said that he felt like his relationship with his father was more akin to grandfather and grandson. His mother, Elizabeth, was a milliner and encouraged his creative streak from a young age. Both parents came from a long line of weavers and manufacturers. His father instilled in him a Calvinist work ethic which Willie adhered to throughout his long creative life.

Willie decided he wanted to be an artist at the age of five when his Primary One teacher at Lairdsland Primary asked the class to draw a puffer, a familiar sight on the Forth and Clyde Canal near their school. Willie felt a huge sense of injustice when a drawing by his best friend Elfie Stirling, whom he considered his inferior when it came to drawing, was hung on the wall while his was not. There were no hard feelings and Elfie went on to be best man at Willie’s wedding.

This early rejection fired his ambition to be an artist and stood Willie in good stead as he navigated his way in the art world. He attended Lenzie Academy during the years of World War II and gravitated to art and in particular to the head of art, Bob Allison, in whom he found a kindred spirit. Bob would bring in books from his own collection and give Willie his first taste of art history. With his art teacher’s encouragement, as well as that of his parents, he applied for a place at GSA in 1948 and was accepted into Commercial Art. There, he received a rigorous education from a course that, at the time, accepted the most skilled draughtsmen (and it generally was men). It was in first year at GSA that he got his first taste of linocutting, a skill he would go on to master. Ironically, he was the only one in his class to fail linocutting.
At the end of his post-graduate year, having sold two prints to the V&A Museum in London, he was headhunted to work as a graphic designer for an advertising agency. He hated the commercialism of the big city though and returned home within a matter of months.

A chance encounter with Dr Barrie, head master of St Ninian’s High School in Kirkintilloch, led to the suggestion he sit Higher English and qualify as an art teacher. He also found love, when he bumped into a young illustrator called Anne Henry outside the Cosmo cinema (now the GFT) in Glasgow one Sunday afternoon. Anne had also attended GSA but had been in the year below Willie. He waited a week before ringing her and the couple went on to have four children in the course of an enduring and loving partnership which lasted more than 60 years. Their home in Kirkintilloch was a magnet for friends and family and their beautiful garden was a shared passion, as well as a continuing source of inspiration for Willie, who incorporated botanical themes into his artwork, particularly his painting, which he came to late in life. After being told at art school that students in Commercial Art “didn’t paint”, he found the experience liberating. “If you make a bad cut, it’s wasted,” he once said. “Painting allows you so much more freedom.”

Willie Rodger spent three decades in art education; firstly working between Lenzie Academy and Cumbernauld Village School, followed by a long spell as principal teacher of art at Clydebank High. He retired at the age of 57 to focus on his own work as a freelance artist. His linocuts and woodcuts, with their simple lines and wry observational humour were perennially popular with the public. In the early 1980s, having been rejected for a teaching post at GSA, he embarked on a series of large monumental architectural subjects drawn in black conte. This left him refreshed and revitalised when he returned to linocutting. All of this activity took place in his eyrie of an attic studio above the family home.
Willie was the first ever Associate, and latterly full Member of the Royal Scottish Academy to be elected to the new category of Printmaker. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Stirling in 1999. Closer to home, his peers at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts elected him an RGI. His commissions included illustrating The Colour of Black & WhitePoems 1984-2003 by Liz Lochhead (2003) and The Field of Thistles by Monica Clough (1983); designing a 100 foot long mural for the Exhibition Centre Station in Glasgow (1988); and 40 banners for Union Street Bi-Centenary in Aberdeen (1994).
Old habits die hard and in 2008, despite being an avowed digital Luddite, Willie got involved in teaching 185 pupils across Scotland how to make prints through an online initiative. The programme, delivered by Media Matters Educational Consultancy, arose when art teachers declared that they would like their pupils to be able to make prints “like Willie Rodger”. He went on to work with 150 pupils in secondary schools on a series of books inspired by his cover illustration for his friend Liz Lochhead’s The Colour of Black & White. He gave every single pupil one-to-one feedback.
As the former Makar (Scottish national poet) puts it in her poem, The Art of Willie Rodger, “Willie sees, and what he sees shows face to face. It’s full of grace.”
The last picture Willie Rodger made was called The Partys Over. Its title was, according to his son Robin, entirely conscious.
Willie Rodger is survived by his wife Anne, his sister, Jenty, and children; Jana, Robin, Guy and Susan, their partners and ten grandchildren.

Jan Patience

  • This obituary appeared first in the Herald newspaper


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