Alan Gilderdale was born in 1924 in York, England, where his father was the engineering director of the Quaker chocolate firm, Rowntrees. As a child, Alan’s interests were divided between tennis and art. He was an accomplished tennis player, playing in Junior Wimbledon, but his ability in art eventually won out. By the time he was sixteen, his school art teacher, Thomas Saunders Nash, recommended that he apply for London University’s Slade School of Art, where he became their youngest student. Owing to the Second World War, the Slade was evacuated to Oxford, and Alan enjoyed a productive year, based at the Ruskin School of Art. However, in 1941 he was called up for Active Service. As a conscientious objector, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, working initially as a nurse orderly in Lewisham Hospital in South London.
He was sent to Italy in 1944, where Allied Forces were battling their way up the Italian peninsula, and subsequently transferred to Germany to help with the thousands of Eastern European refugees. Immediately after the end of the War, while waiting for demobilisation, he was sent to Le Chambon, in Central France, where he helped to build a school which is still functioning today. He resumed studies at the Slade in 1946, completing his diploma in drawing and painting in 1948. He was then invited to do a postgraduate year, where he specialised in design – learning wood engraving and lithography.
During his time at London University, he met his future wife Betty, who was studying English, and they married in1949.
Alan decided early that supporting his family by teaching would allow him to continue his own direction in painting without having to contend with the vagaries of the art market. He taught part-time at St Martin’s School of Art for nine years, but it was a part-time role at Reigate College of Art that eventually grew into a full-time job. Alan and Betty settled near Reigate, later building a house in Abinger Common, outside Dorking in Surrey.The house had a large studio and Alan was able to get a considerable amount of painting done, resulting in exhibitions both in London and locally.
By now, the couple had two children, Anne (now Lisa) and Howard, but Howard developed leukaemia and died, aged two, in 1956. The discovery that radiation from post-war atmospheric nuclear testing could cause such cancers spurred Alan to become active in the early Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was a motor- cycle marshal on the first Aldermaston March, and was arrested, along with hundreds of others, at a sit-down protest in Trafalgar Square.
Two more sons, Peter and James, were born in Abinger, but changes in art education and concerns over the English school system combined to encourage Alan to apply for a teaching position at Friends School, Wanganui. He and Betty were jointly appointed and sailed for New Zealand in December 1966.The family spent two busy years in Wanganui, and then relocated to Auckland following Betty’s appointment to North Shore Teachers College.
After a year of painting full-time, Alan taught at Ardmore Teachers College, the Kindergarten Teachers College, and the Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT University). Nevertheless, he relinquished a full-time role at the latter to return to England during 1975, where he studied at a Quaker college in Birmingham. He would continue in part-time teaching roles at ATI until 1988, but the lighter teaching load allowed him to focus on his painting – alongside commitments to Quakers, and the Peace movement, where he was a founder member of the Foundation for Peace Studies. Never flamboyant, Alan preferred back-room roles, but was highly respected for his work in both contexts.
The 1980s was his most sustained period of artistic activity, and he became particularly interested in lithography, working at Auckland’s Muka studios, and receiving a scholarship in 1987 to work at the Masareel Centre in Kasterlee, Belgium. Unfortunately, a major heart attack soon after his arrival necessitated an early return to New Zealand, curtailing the possibility of international exposure for this work.
He worked actively through the 1990s, but the demands of illustrating the highly successful “Little Yellow Digger” series of picture books that he and Betty created meant that periods of painting activity became more sporadic after his last exhibition in 1996.
Alan remained active until 2013, when his heart problems finally caught up with him and he died in December of that year, aged 89. His family remember him as a kind, quiet, gentle, generous and highly principled man, but one whose twinkle hinted at the active imagination that found voice in his work.