Passion for the pen ... and submarines

SUBMARINE MAN Barry Robertson at work in his studio at his Gosport home. Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (131257-1)
SUBMARINE MAN Barry Robertson at work in his studio at his Gosport home. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (131257-1)
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Barry Robertson flips open his box of tricks and pulls out a pen with a miniscule nib 0.13 millimetres thick.

‘It’s the only pen I use. The nibs cost £22 each and one will last me about 10 pictures.’

Spread out in front of us are several of his original, immaculately-detailed, pen and ink drawings.

All of them feature submarines. Barry is fascinated, if not obsessed, by them.

He always has been ever since he was a lad growing up in Gosport watching the boats of the Silent Service stealthily arriving at and departing from the old submarine base, HMS Dolphin.

Now he has published a collection of his work featuring nearly 60 submarines down the ages – from Holland 1, the first commissioned for the Royal Navy in 1901, to today’s giant Vanguard-class of nuclear boats.

It’s called The British Submarine and each drawing is accompanied by a description in Barry’s distinctive handwriting.

His work has been compared to that of the late Alfred Wainwright’s seven-volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.

‘I used to collect old Wainwright’s books and I always wondered how he might have drawn a specific mountain.

‘When you first look at them it appears to be just a load of lines, but look closer and you can see how they all come together. Superb stuff, and if I was half as good as him I’d be chuffed,’ says Barry, modestly. He is, even though he describes the pictures before us as ‘my childish daubings’.

His studio is a spare room upstairs in his house at Meadow Walk, Gosport, and night after night he pores over his drawings, scratching away with that fine nib producing another labour of love. He draws from hundreds of photographs he has taken of each submarine from every angle imaginable.

‘It doesn’t do your eyes any good, but I find it very therapeutic. You just lose yourself in all the detail,’ he adds.

‘On average each one takes about a week of evenings. Four of those will be spent getting the sea just right and usually one night is spent on the submarine itself.’

On the walls of his sitting room some of his other works are framed. They include the mill at Langstone, Portchester Castle and the Spinnaker Tower.

He is a member of the Gosport and Lee-on-the-Solent art groups. ‘They’re always trying to persuade me to put colour washes on my drawings, but I don’t see the point. I only ever want to work in pen and ink.’

Despite a lifetime working for the Ministry of Defence in Portsmouth Dockyard, the Woolston shipyard in Southampton and latterly at Fort Rowner, Gosport, he came late to submarines in the artistic sense.

Barry, 68, continues: ‘It’s only relatively recently that I’ve found that I can draw them.

‘Although I spent the last 10 years of my working life working on submarines, I could never draw them. They were too hard. Too round. I was never satisfied with them, but then one day it clicked.’

He’d had the same problem with Nelson’s flagship. ‘For years people kept asking me to do pictures of HMS Victory and I just couldn’t get it. All that rigging – it was far too complicated and I shied away from it.

‘But once I decided to give it a go, it came naturally. Now I can draw Victory with my eyes closed.’

But he still has to concentrate hard on submarines: ‘Like most people I do find them spooky, ugly even, but then I also think they’re beautiful. Weird isn’t it?’

Born in Gosport, Barry was educated at Grove Road School, which is where he discovered his natural talent. ‘Like all kids I used to doodle on exercise books, then one day I looked at what I’d drawn subconsciously and realised it wasn’t too bad.

· The British Submarine by Barry Robertson is available from The Bookshop, Lee-on-the-Solent, or from Barry directly on 01329 511705.


Barry Robertson passed the Dockyard exam and began his apprenticeship as an electrical armament fitter in the ’yard and the RN Armament Depot, Gosport, in 1961.

After finishing his apprenticeship he transferred to the Naval Ordnance Inspectorate working on Sea Cat and Sea Slug missiles and Mark 46 torpedoes.

Barry moved on to become a naval weapons overseer at the Vosper Thornycroft yard at Woolston working on the last steel warships to be built there – the Type 42 destroyers Southampton, Nottingham and Gloucester.

From there he was transferred to the Admiralty Degaussing Establishment (demagnetising ships and submarines) at Fort Rowner, Gosport.

He ended his career as a project manager working on nuclear submarines at Faslane, a period during which he was despatched to Bahrain to work during the first Gulf War.

He was able to retire four days after his 50th birthday when degaussing work was transferred to the United States, but his job had taken him all round the UK and to the USA, Australia, the Red Sea, Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.