Robert Stewart Sherriffs (1906-1960) Best known as film caricaturist for Punch, R S Sherriffs specialised in effective abstracted ink drawings of celebrity, in which the abstraction always retains a likeness.
R S Sherriffs was born in Arbroath, Scotland on 13 February 1906, one of three sons of an Arbroath flax merchant. He attended the local Arbroath High School and, encouraged by his family to develop his talents in art and music, became an Arts medallist. An accomplished musician, he even considered a career as a professional pianist, but an intense loathing of Bach and Mozart and his increasing interest in art prevented it.
Sherriffs studied art and heraldic design at Edinburgh College of Arts, and later found that the discipline of heraldic composition could be well adapted to caricature, once saying ‘I regarded caricatures as designs and the expressions on faces merely as changes in basic patterns’ (Bryant 2000, page 205). His approach to caricature was calligraphic and he preferred working in brush to pen, using Chinese inks for colour illustrations.
Leaving Edinburgh for London in 1926, Sherriffs went to live in Holland Park Road and spent his first weeks in the capital at the theatre and cinema, seeing everything he could – including Ben Hur thirteen and a half times – until he ran out of money. He began work in advertising, drawing for commercial studios, however he found it tedious and unappealing, and started to send examples of caricatures to magazines.
This was to be an enterprising move, as Sherriffs’ lucky break came when the editor of the Bystander accepted and published his drawing of the actor John Barrymore. It was spotted by the writer Beverley Nichols, who was at that time writing a series of celebrity profiles under the pseudonym ‘Woad’. On the basis of the Barrymore caricature, Nichols asked Sherriffs to illustrate his column, which led to regular work for The Sketch and eventually to his becoming its film and theatre caricaturist from 1930 onwards.
In 1930, Sherriffs also branched into book illustration with The Life and Death of Tamburlaine the Great, which was admired by Edmund Dulac, who greatly influenced Sherriffs. A review of Tamburlaine proclaimed Sherriffs as the new Aubrey Beardsley.
Before long, Sherriffs was contributing to various magazines, including Theatre World, Pall Mall, The Strand Magazine and John O’London. He also 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.
During the Second World War, Sherriffs served in the tank regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps, making drawings for education and aircraft recognition. In 1944, he wrote a comic novel, Salute if you Must, based on his experiences. After the war he found fewer outlets for his work –having been blitzed in 1941, TheSketch was temporarily inoperational, and the use of photography was becoming more popular in magazines. Perhaps as a result of this, Sherriffs spent more time on other projects and illustrated several more books, the most significant being The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam of 1947, which, along with Tamburlaine the Great, demonstrates the best example of his style.
In 1948, Sherriffs succeeded James Dowd as film caricaturist on Punch, a position he continued until 1960. He also applied to follow William Dyson on the Daily Herald, eventually losing out to George Whitelaw, some considering his humour not aggressive enough for a political caricaturist.
Other work included illustrations for the Evening News, covers for Men Only, and advertisements for Four Square Tobacco and Guinness. He also designed menus for Masonic dinners and for the Savage Club, of which he was a member, and was invited to paint murals for the boardroom at Guinness’ Park Royal brewery, though they unfortunately no longer exist.
Although a private man, Sherriffs received lots of fan mail, particularly during his career at Punch, even if some was intended for the playwright and novelist, R C Sherriff, forcing him to reply politely but increasingly wearily, ‘I did not write Journey’s End, in 1928 or subsequently’.
Sherriffs worked independently throughout his life to create drawings and designs intending to put together an exhibition but, after being diagnosed with cancer, he set fire to all his work before being admitted to hospital. Sherriffs died on 26 December 1960 at the age of 54.
His work is represented in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery.