Elected ARSA: 16 March 1966

Robert Callender, who has died of cancer aged 79, was the best-known beachcomber in British art. For him, trudging along the seashore with his eyes fixed to the ground was both a way of art and a way of life: the driftwood he gathered provided the heating and cooking fuel in the bothy he discovered in 1969, built at the bleak Point of Stoer on the Sutherland coastline 100 years before as a shelter for men erecting Stoer Head lighthouse. Callender and his partner, Elizabeth Ogilvie, later his wife, called this home, though only in the summer months: in winter they retreated to a studio in Leith, and after 1990 to a converted cinema in Fife. She, too, was an artist, and in symbiosis with Callender's obsession with beaches and flotsam her own extraordinary work was driven by a study of water.


His career began with a series of shows in the early 1960s of 6ft panoramic landscapes – a walk-in, human scale. These included a sequence of paintings of the Lake District, some of which were almost literal transcriptions, but in which rocks and clouds amalgamated rhythmically, almost sculpturally: "His view is not an end but a beginning" wrote Robert Waterhouse in a Guardian review of an exhibition of this work in Bradford in 1964. 


Although Callender was born in Mottingham, Kent (now deep inside south-east London), he lived in Scotland for 60 years, following a short time (1948-49) at art school in South Shields, County Durham. From 1951 he studied medical illustration at Edinburgh University, but in 1954 moved to the painting class at Edinburgh College of Art, concluding with a postgraduate year spent in Italy, France and Spain on a couple of travelling scholarships from the university and the British School at Rome. In 1960, he began a parallel but successful career as a teacher at the college for the next 33 years, with stints lecturing at the American university in Aix-en-Provence in France.


In 1966, Callender made a brief, unsuccessful excursion into pop art, though this, too, was a portent of some of his later work with found objects at Point of Stoer. His father had been an engineer and boat-builder on the Thames and Callender never forgot the sight and smell of nautical activities on the tidal river. As his career developed, he would rarely be far from the sea.


His writing about his own work tended to the dispassionate, as though he were commenting on a scientific experiment. Crucially, he mentioned "an ongoing interest in the narrow strip of land between high and low water". In the 70s and early 80s, a typical Callender piece would be a highly focused painting of sand and pebbles on a beach. His fascination with appearances left him open to accusations of banality, but he shrugged off the description of his work as "photorealism" because his intention was an altogether more real – in the sense of a more rounded, intimate, even spiritual – response to the environment. Again, the canvases of this period were big, and showed in two key exhibitions: alongside work by his wife at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1977; and solo at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1980.

In June 1983, the small fishing boat Arcadia was wrecked below the cliffs at Stoer Head, killing five people. From above, Callender observed the wreckage floating in a green sea: "Great swaths of orange nets and floats trapped in a tangle of wreckage." From this point on, his work became inalienably linked to man's struggle with the ocean.


The impulse the disaster gave his work was displayed two years later in a remarkable show, Between Tides, at the Talbot Rice Gallery at Edinburgh University. Callender eschewed direct reference to the Arcadia and instead showed what looked like the skeletons of abandoned working boats, severed bows and detached rudders, but were actually astonishingly accurate simulacra made of balsa wood, paint, card and papier-mache. One boat, repainted white, looked ghostlike against the white unplastered walls of the gallery. The exhibition seemed to whisper the lives of those destroyed vessels and their crewmen. It was a triumph of hand-crafted realism transmuted into elegiac poetry, and was interspersed with photographs and acrylics. He regarded the reconstructed debris of the boats not as sculpture but as painting in three dimensions – less frustrating and more real than painting on canvas.


In an exhibition called Sea Salvage along the same lines in the same place four years later, Callender used wood ash, sawdust and peat to give texture to his sea pieces. He pointed out that he was making paper from trees look like wood again, and his heart may well have resonated with the ecological implications: however sombre his theme or sad the plastic detritus that he reconstructed, Callender had a great sense of optimism about the enduring culture of the Scottish coastline.


Indeed, though he may not have thought much about it himself, Callender was part of a tradition of Scottish marine painting, from William MacTaggart to Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Bellany, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and of course his wife, Liz, who survives him along with two sons, John and Mike, and four grandchildren, Fiona, Laura, Robbie and Sula.

RSA Obituary