Born: October 6, 1926;

Died: December 19, 2019

NORMAN Gilbert, who has died aged 93, was a Glasgow artist who became an ‘overnight’ sensation in the last years of his life.

His story went viral last year when a BBC Loop film about his long and prolific career was viewed more than six million times around the world. It told the tale of an artist, seen as ‘unteachable’ by his tutors at Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and a potentially ‘dangerous influence’ by Edinburgh School of Art, who nevertheless created a spectacular body of 300 vibrant works over a seven-decade career.

His meticulous, vivid images portrayed his wife, Pat, their four sons and their friends at various stages of their lives – in their tenement flat in the south side of Glasgow, in front of fishing boats on their Highland holidays or in the Victorian terrace house where the family lived for the last 35 years.

The colourful pictures that so many people came to love were the result of years of often solitary work developing his craft. His style developed considerably over the years from intimate muted pictures, painted at the time of post-war austerity – and the personal struggles of bringing up a young family in a caravan whilst earning his living as a pig man – evolving into large joyful compositions, their complex colours and patterns working together. Norman saw the end result as paintings that are ‘at peace’.

These later pictures seem very un-Scottish, and were seen by many as referencing his early life in Trinidad, where he was born to Scottish parents in 1926.

By the time he was nine, when his family moved to Troon, in Ayrshire, he had crossed the Atlantic several times. When the Second World War broke out, he was a pupil at Marr College, eventually joining the Royal Navy, serving as a radar operator on HMS Liverpool in the Mediterranean.

He was demobbed at 21 in 1948 and accepted for GSA. "My parents were dead against me going to art school," he recalled, "but I said to them that I’d do commercial art and that satisfied them. As soon as I got there, I knew I wouldn’t do commercial art."

At GSA, that rebellious streak strengthened as he discovered that the prevailing fashion for academic Impressionism did not work for him. Nevertheless, he loved art school, feeling entirely at home in the environment and especially the Mack building, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Art Nouveau masterpiece. He also met the woman who was to become his wife and lasting support, Pat Jordan.

In 1952, however, he failed his diploma. But he wasn’t put off. Whilst working as a pig man, then painting scenery at Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre, his own pictures remained his obsession. He lugged his heavy oil on board paintings determinedly around the Mayfair galleries. In 1957, he featured in the prestigious Leicester Galleries’ Artists of Fame and Promise exhibition. He also turned to teaching to help support his family, which he did part-time for the rest of his ‘civilian’ working life.

The family’s eventual upgrade to a flat in Glasgow saw colour begin to flood his paintings, the start of the style most recognisably Norman’s, with patterns, plants and figures in juxtaposition. He was also awarded his diploma by the GSA in 1963.

In 1967, he had his first solo exhibition, at the Upper Grosvenor Gallery in London. The same year he was featured in Vogue under the apt headline The Loneliness of the Long Distance Painter. Then, through the seventies and eighties, there followed increasing recognition with Edinburgh Festival shows at the Traverse Theatre Gallery and others in London, Leeds and Montreal. In 1974, he was the subject a Scope documentary on the BBC, being interviewed by leading Scottish art critic W Gordon Smith.

Big-time success still eluded him, but he continued to document his growing family. As the boys grew and moved away, he began to work less with models and more with plants and patterns, the terraced home he lived in becoming more of a focus.

Around 2010, Pat was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Norman became her devoted career.

When, in 2016, Pat suffered a severe stroke, Norman stayed by her bedside for the last days of her life, spending time each day drawing her. When a doctor looked in on this scene, Norman looked up and said: "It’s alright, it just keeps me sane."

When he later considered why he made these extraordinarily moving drawings, he said: “It is what I do. I didn’t think there was anything strange about doing the drawings. It was just something I have spent my life doing. I was just drawing Pat again… I had drawn her thousands of times before.”

He acknowledged, however, that this time there was a difference: ‘I think they are separate from [the other work]. I can’t ask her what she thinks of them.’

His trio of paintings after Pat died (titled The Chair I, II and III) stand comparison with anything he ever did for skill and emotional impact. These works and the drawings were exhibited in 2018 at the Yellow Door Gallery, Dumfries, in collaboration with Glasgow University. Norman’s son, Dr Mark Gilbert, also an artist, has used them to illustrate his work on art and end of life care at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The drawings are also soon to be included in a book.

Meanwhile, the popularity of the BBC Loop film brought Norman attention around the world, coinciding with two near-sell-out exhibitions at the Tatha Gallery, in Newport-on-Tay.

This sudden success was hugely gratifying, if slightly bemusing, to Norman, but the artist who sought to make every picture better than the last one succeeded in spades; his work through his eighties and nineties more intricate, cohesive and ‘at peace’ than ever. Norman started painting as a vocation that would ‘last a lifetime’ and he produced his last completed picture in mid-November. A preparatory drawing, started just before he died, now sits on his easel.

Norman Gilbert leaves his four sons, Paul, Bruno, Daniel and Mark, and grandchildren Katy and Murphy.