A unique collection of glamorous 1920s and 1930s portraits will go on display for the first time at London’s Cartoon Museum from 11th September, featuring the work of caricaturist Robert Stewart Sherriffs.
The exhibition features illustrations of actors Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Merle Oberon, Shirley Temple, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh, Ivor Novello, Stanley Holloway, Jessie Matthews and Gracie Fields.
The 1920s and ’30s were the Golden Age of Hollywood and a vibrant time for London’s West End. Chronicling the era was Robert Stewart Sherriffs, who drew dramatic stage and film caricatures for magazines such as Radio Times, London Calling and, especially, The Sketch.
The Age of Glamour exhibition ranges from large star portraits of Greta Garbo and Charles Laughton to ensemble drawings featuring Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft in Romeo and Juliet and musical numbers from No! No! Nanette. Vivien Leigh appears in the play which provided her first big break.
Sherriffs’ elegant flowing line, tending at times towards sculptural abstraction, and highly stylised use of texture and pattern conjure up the glamour of the era.
“The brush was better than the pen for all manner of drawings, and confirmed my previous conviction that figures and faces were patterns to be studied and memorised – not patiently drawn from life,” he said of his distinctive style of drawing. “I regarded caricatures as designs, and the expressions on faces merely as changes in a basic pattern”.
Sheriffs’s most famous film caricatures were produced from studio stills or drawn after brief visits to preview screenings, where he seldom remained for the whole film. The British Cartoon Archive notes he preferred to draw with a brush rather than a pen, and, contemptuous of deadlines and averse to working in London, he dispatched his finished work by train.
Although his work is represented in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, this is the first time these pictures, selected from the Cartoon Museum’s Sherriffs’ collection of over 900 works, donated to the museum by his daughter Alexandra, have been displayed since they were drawn in the late 1920s and the 1930s.
Robert Stewart Sherriffs was born in Arbroath, Scotland on 13 February 1906. The son of a flax merchant, he studied at Edinburgh College of Art before coming to London in 1927. His break came later that year when a drawing of John Barrymore as ‘Don Juan’ was published in The Bystander, where it caught the eye of the writer Beverly Nichols, who asked him to illustrate the ‘Woad’ series of celebrity profiles that he wrote in The Sketch.
Before long, Sherriffs was contributing to various magazines, including Theatre World, Pall Mall, The Strand Magazine and John O’London, and contributed to Nash’s magazine in the 1930s and to The Radio Times from 1927. When Arthur Watts was tragically killed in a car crash in 1935, Sherriffs took over the illustration of the Radio Times series ‘Both Sides of the Microphone’, submitting as many as five drawings a week until 1940.
His work for the magazines included weekly film and theatre caricatures to accompany reviews, as well as full-page star portraits of the leading ladies and men of the day.
During the Second World War Sherriffs joined the the tank regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps but later worked as a war artist, providing drawings for education and aircraft recognition booklets. He wrote a comic novel, Salute if you Must, based on his experiences, in 1944. (Influenced by Edmund Dulac, with whom he worked for a time, Sherriffs also illustrated a number of books, beginning in 1930 with Christopher Marlowe’s The Life and Death of Tamburlaine the Great).
After the war with frewer outlets to employ him (The Sketch offices were bombed and the magazine was temporarily out of action), Sherriffs spent more time on other projects and illustrated several more books, including The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He succeeded James Dowd as film caricaturist on Punch in 1948, a position he continued until 1960, and contributed illustrations to the Evening News, covers for Men Only, and advertisements for Four Square Tobacco and Guinness.
It would appear that we are very lucky to see some of this work: although he always intended his art should at some point be exhibited, after being diagnosed with cancer, he burned all his personal papers and set fire to his work before being admitted to hospital.
Sherriffs died on 26 December 1960 at the age of 54.
• The Age of Glamour: R. S. Sherriffs’ Stars of Stage & Screen runs from 11th September – 24th December 2013. The Cartoon Museum is at 35 Little Russell Street, London WC1A 2HH and open Mon-Sat, 10.30 – 17.30; Sundays 12.00 – 17.30. Admission charges apply. Web: www.cartoonmuseum.org Tel: 020 7580 8155