Robert Stewart Sherriffs was born in Arbroath, Scotland. He attended Edinburgh College of Art where he studied heraldic design along with fine art. Just before turning 21, Sherriffs moved to London.
He found work in advertising studios, however grew tiered of the tedious nature of the work so he began sending examples of caricatures to magazine. He got his break when the weekly tabloid magazine, Bystander, published his caricature of actor John Barrymore (yep, Drew Barrymore’s granddad). The illustration caught the eye of Beverley Nichols, who commissioned Sherriffs to produce a series of portraits for his column in The Sketch.
This exposure led to further work in magazines including Theatre World, Pall Mall, and The Strand Magazine. He also regularly contributed to The Radio Times and later on Punch magazine. Sherriffs also illustrated a number of books, including The Life and Death of Tamburlaine the Great, and Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The former was comended by one of Sherriffs important influences, Edmund Dulac.
There is a sad turn of events to Sherriffs’ career. He had intended to bring together some of his personal drawings for an exhibition. However, after being diagnosed with cancer, he set fire to all his work prior to being admitted to hospital. Sherriffs died at the age of 54.
I was introduced to R. S. Sherriffs by the current exhibition at The Cartoon Museum, Age of Glamour: R. S. Sherriffs’ Stars of Stage and Screen. There were various pieces including portraits, set, and costume design. Throughout the whole exhibition I had my jaw wide open. Sherriffs is a master. His control of the brush is some of the best I have had the pleasure of seeing first hand. His lines perfectly sweep thin to thick. His tones are one flat colour. Throughout the exhibition I can not remember seeing any cover-ups or mistakes. The first thing I wanted to do when I left the exhibition was buy a big book full of his work, but alas, no such luck. The closest thing published of a body of Sherriffs’ work is Sherriffs at the Cinema, which solely concentrates on his famous caricatures.
I feel some of his previous printed material do not do his illustrations justice. The last book of his work was published in the 1980s. Sherriffs’ work desperately demands a modern, more befitting, bounded showcase to be fully appreciated. (ahem, publishers please take note)
Age of Glamour is on until 24th December 2013, and if you can, I definitely advise you to check it out.