Robin was born in Rangiora, New Zealand, finishing his schooling at Christ's College, Christchurch before obtaining a national scholarship to Canterbury University College. He obtained a Master of Science degree here before moving to the University of Otago to study for a PhD in inorganic chemistry. However a series of events and no less the toss of a coin, led him to take a British Titan Products scholarship at University College London with Ron Nyholm to study the chemistry of titanium and other early transition elements in 1958. This decision very much showed his desire to follow his academic pursuits and his clear sense of adventure.
UCL became Robin's place of work for the next 60 years and he continued to work there up until he died. He became Professor in 1982, Dean of Science in 1987 and Head of Department and the first Sir William Ramsay Professor in 1989, which he retained until 2008. He remained the Head of Department until 1999. He lectured several times at the Royal Institution, giving a Friday Evening Discourse in 1997 and becoming its Secretary from 1998-2004 and an Honorary Fellow in 2004. In addition, he took considerable interest in NZ High Commission matters, having joined the NZ Universities Graduates' Association (NZUGA) in the UK in 1958, and as chair from 1995-2012. In 2008 he became Sir William Ramsay Professor Emeritus and continued his research for a further decade. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1989, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1990, a Member of the Academia Europaea in 1992, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004 (for his contributions to Science and to New Zealand's interests in the UK), a Foreign Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, India, in 2007, and an International Member of the American Philosophical Society in 2010. He was elected Secretary to the Council of the Royal Institution of Great Britain from 1998 to 2004, and Honorary Life Fellow in 2004. He also served on the Senate of the University of London (1988-92) and on the Council of UCL (1991-4). He lectured widely in 36 countries and acted as visiting professor at more than a dozen international departments.
Robin made major contributions to the field of inorganic chemistry with his synthesis and structural investigations of new classes of metal compounds, including those containing unusual metal-metal bonds. He also developed our understanding of resonance Raman spectroscopy. His abiding interest in colour led him to a deep investigation of pigments and dyes. Raman microscopy was shown to be the critically important technique for such investigations, as it is highly sensitive, and allows in situ probing as well as pigment sampling at sub-microgram levels. It was in his later career that he applied his techniques to forge a link between the worlds of science and art. His techniques were non-destructive and highly suitable for the detection of forgeries by way of the identification on a painting of a synthetic pigments with a known first date of manufacture. He gained access to the V&A and British museum archives, Royal collections and other priceless works often hidden from the public eye. He studied spectacular and rare works of art - the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Vinland map, Egyptian papyrus and Renaissance art.
Robin's research in transition metal chemistry, mixed-valence chemistry, metal-metal bonding and spectroscopy is embodied in over 535 scientific publications and 36 books written or edited, and was accomplished with a very effective research group which rarely exceeded six at any one time. Notable features are:
- The discovery of 8-coordinate complexes of Ti, Zr, Hf, V, Nb and Ta and the characterization of the coordination chemistry, spectroscopy and magnetism of compounds of the early transition elements as well as the synthesis and study of organo-titanium complexes and their relevance to the Ziegler-Natta polymerization of olefins.
- The characterization of metal-ligand stretching frequencies as functions of the oxidation state, coordination number and electronic configuration of the metal.
- The application of laser Raman spectroscopy to the study of inorganic materials in all states of matter. Detailed gas phase Raman spectroscopy led to the analysis of vibration-rotation band contours and their use in the determination of Coriolis and force constants.
- The development of the theory and practice of resonance Raman spectroscopy, particularly with respect to inorganic compounds.
- The characterisation and study of metal-metal bonded, mixed-valence, and linear-chain complexes. The study of the energies, intensities and bandwidths of intervalence transitions.
- The pioneering and influential development of Raman microscopy for the identification of pigments and dyes on illuminated manuscripts, paintings and archaeological artefacts, the application of this technique to forensic science and the identification of forgeries, and the consequential bridging of the Arts/Science interface.
Robin's named lectures include the Royal Society (RSC)'s Tilden, Nyholm, Graham (twice) and Liversidge lectures, the Royal Society's UK-Canada Rutherford and Bakerian lectures, the Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ)'s Distinguished Speaker Lectures and the University of Canterbury's Rutherford Lecture. His international awards include the Czech Spectroscopy Association's Marci medal, the RSNZ's Sidey medal and the inaugural Franklin-Lavoisier Medal and Prize of the Maison de la Chimie (Paris) and Chemical Heritage Foundation (Philadelphia).
Robin met Beatrice in 1962 at the Chelsea Town Hall inter-varsity club dance, proposing soon after (at Cardiff Arms Park as the All Blacks beat the Barbarians!). They lived a long and happy life together, with their two children, Vicky and Matthew. Robin will be remembered as an academic and a teacher, and above all, a gentleman. He was a loyal New Zealander who made England his home.