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Tim Robinson obituary | Books


Tim Robinson, who has died aged 85 after contracting Covid-19, was a cartographer, visual artist and writer who made a sustained study of the landscape of the Aran islands and Connemara after moving from London to the west of Ireland in 1972. A walker in all weathers, he wrote a series of influential books, and created intricate hand-drawn maps to accompany them, which were published by Folding Landscapes, the imprint he set up with his wife, Máiréad.

In the two volumes of Stones of Aran, Robinson recorded his walks around Árainn, the largest of the Aran islands, which sit by the mouth of Galway Bay. Pilgrimage (1986), the first book, which won the Irish Book Awards literature medal, traced the endless perimeter of the island’s rocky coastline, Robinson in search of “a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin’s arc to the wave”. Observing patterns of rock, wind and water opened his prose to the fractal dimensions of the inlet, the cove, the cliff and darkening pool.

Labyrinth (1995), the second book, headed into Árainn’s interior. Understanding the Irish language as the living code that connected humanity to the deep time of stone and water, Robinson was a meticulous collector of names, stories and places. His life’s work laid new strata in the cultural history of Ireland.

The Connemara trilogy – Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006), Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008) and Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011) – continued Robinson’s exploration of the relationship between the human and the inanimate, and won him two more Irish Book awards. He had a long association with academics at the National University of Ireland Galway, from whom he sought advice on everything from rock formations to language puzzles. These questions evolved from conversations with the local communities of which he was part and whose knowledge he respected deeply.

The resulting fusions created a culture of collaboration, or meitheal, that for decades drew artists and scientists to the Robinsons’ home in Roundstone, County Galway, where they had settled in 1984. Spry, sharp and gently intent, Robinson encouraged John Moriarty, Moya Cannon, Robert Macfarlane and many others, his natural frugality leavened by the supply of tea and chocolate digestives. Robinson signed his correspondence with Andrew McNeillie, whose magazine Archipelago situated Robinson beside another great coastal artist, Norman Ackroyd, with a cormorant’s “squawk”. This mimicked the sound of the bird on a rock as it made room for another, just as Robinson shared his learning with so many of his contemporaries.

Tim Robinson’s map of the Aran Islands, combining topography, language, geology, myth and physics, which was published by Folding Landscapes, the imprint he ran with his wife, Máiréad.
Tim Robinson’s map of the Aran Islands, combining topography, language, geology, myth and physics, which was published by Folding Landscapes, the imprint he ran with his wife, Máiréad. Photograph: Tim Robinson

He was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and grew up in Ilkley, Yorkshire, one of two sons of Grace (nee Drever) and Frank Robinson, whose family business sold engineering equipment, stipends from which kept Tim going as a young artist and writer. As a child he explored “the watery intricacies” and “airy uplands” of Wharfedale and Ilkley Moor with his brother, landscapes that were later echoed in the Burren area of County Clare and in Roundstone Bog.

Educated at Ilkley grammar school, Robinson did his national service in the RAF as a technician servicing radar devices in Malaya. He studied mathematics and physics at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and in London in 1959 married Margaret Fitzgibbon, known as Máiréad, whom he met in a house share soon after graduating.

Máiréad, or M in the books, was Tim’s constant partner, reading to him, encouraging him, and travelling with him on his unlikely expeditions, first to Istanbul, and then to Vienna, where he painted and exhibited. Unsettled on their return to London in 1964, Tim – using the name Timothy Drever, after his Scottish mother – worked as a subeditor and technical illustrator, and continued to paint and show his work; he later donated his geometric paintings from this period to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin.

The Irish phase of his life began with his arrival in the Aran islands in 1972, a westerly terrain that consumed his imagination ever after. The notes and maps made during these years filled the flood-prone ground floor of the Robinsons’s home in Roundstone, the upper floor of which looks over the pier and the landward bay, out towards the Twelve Bens of Connemara.

No matter what the talk, this was a hard place to keep the mind still, the clouds scudding across the far mountains, squalls racing the water. At the back was a cluttered hall and a bedroom whose doors opened to a garden hedged against the salt winds of the Atlantic. On spring days Tim and Máiréad lay in bed and waited for the robin to feed from the dish of crumbs they kept beside the bed.

Tim Robinson at Aill na nGlasog, Árainn, in the Aran islands, 1982.
Tim Robinson at Aill na nGlasog, Árainn, in the Aran islands, 1982. Photograph: Archive of Tim Robinson

Robinson was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 2010. His maps of the Aran islands, the Burren and Connemara – places he referred to as the “ABC of earth wonders” – are little miracles of collective assembly, combining topography, language, geology, myth and physics. Robinson was acutely conscious of the damage, both representative and real, that centuries of conflict over land and language had caused. A Land Without Shortcuts, his Parnell lecture in Cambridge in 2011, while he was visiting Parnell fellow at Magdalene College, was a manifesto of his belief that attention to the local invited wonder at the universal. In Robinson’s last book, Experiments on Reality (2019), he reflected that the “course of evolution that brought us forth from cosmic dust is a sequence of marvels the contemplation of which has dazzled and delighted me my whole life”.

From 2006 to 2014 he donated much of his archive material, including photographs, manuscripts, place name records and correspondence with other writers, to the James Hardiman Library at the National University of Ireland Galway.

For decades the Robinsons kept a flat in West Hampstead in London, where Tim wrote and to where they moved in late 2015 due to increasing ill-health. Máiréad died two weeks before Tim; he is survived by his brother, Nigel.

• Tim Robinson, writer, artist and cartographer, born 26 March 1935; died 3 April 2020

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