Ruth Cobb (1878-1950) was an English illustrator and writer, particularly noted for portraying children and dolls in colourful costumes. Some of her full-colour plates may be found disbound and sold separately as prints (“My First Pet”) or reproduced as modern posters (“Little Girls of Other Lands”).
Ruth was born on 14th June 1878 to Thomas Cobb, a future novelist but at the time evidently a tailor in New Bond Street, London. Curiously Ruth’s birthplace is stated as 164 Regent Street, later the sumptuous studio of Victorian society photographer Walery. However the family soon moved to Tunbridge Wells where her sister and brother were born.
All the family became busy writers, but young Ruth was determined to be simply an illustrator. She worked first in a studio then as a freelance, eventually selling to magazines as varied as Chatterbox, the Autocar, the Builder, and Punch.
Notable success began from 1902 with her three books in the Dumpy Books series, where Richard Hunter’s verses accompanied Ruth’s vivid colour sketches of Dollies, More Dollies, and Irene’s Christmas Party. (Other Dumpy titles included one by her father and two by Mary Tourtel, pre-Rupert.) She then produced larger-format books such as The Wonder-Voyage and A Trip to Fairyland, and provided illustrations for books by others.
The Wonder Voyage - front & back covers
Meanwhile her holiday sketches of old buildings started seeing print, eventually blossoming into a long secondary career of illustrated articles. For adults she decorated works such F J Harvey Darton’s A Parcel of Kent, her brother’s first novel Stand to Arms, and – a striking dust-jacket – E H Young’s 1930 best-seller Miss Mole. However she remained devoted to children’s art.
Ruth Cobb cover art (Image The Bamboo Bookcase)
During the Twenties and Thirties Ruth contributed to an astonishing number of children’s annuals and miscellanies for Blackie, Collins, Nelson, Tuck and others. At times she provided both text and pictures for stories or articles. Some young readers could not resist colouring her black-and-white drawings, and surely a portfolio of her children’s sketches would make a lovely colouring book for modern times.
However, this long extension of the Edwardian Summer in children’s illustration was ended abruptly in 1939 by the outbreak of World War II. Ruth’s market was shattered, and so was her whole way of life. A memoir states: “She went to live with relations in Sussex. There, she did a lot of voluntary war work, became President of a Women’s Institute, did map drawing, for the War Agricultural Committee in Lewes, and spoke for the Ministry of Information.” Typically, a 1941 lecture of hers was “Some of London’s Bombed Buildings.”
Later she resumed her work for periodicals, and as the war ended she began producing a quartet of slim illustrated topographical books, all well-received. Evidently she suffered a sudden heart attack, being found dead on 7th December 1950. Her wartime struggles seem to have deepened her appreciation of liberty; the first chapter of A Sussex Highway is entitled “The Beginning of the Road”, its main illustration dated shortly after VE Day. The final chapter of her final book commemorates Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man.
Charming as those late adult books were, it is for her delightful children’s illustrations that Ruth Cobb will be remembered.
Illustrations from The wonder voyage
Note on Ruth Cobb’s family.
Her father Thomas Cobb (1853-1932) was the author of nearly 80 popular novels and many shorter items. Her sister Joyce (1890-1970) produced poems, articles, short stories (notably WWI fiction) and one novel. Her brother (Geoffrey) Belton Cobb wrote approximately 70 crime thrillers. Ruth herself created only a dozen books of her own, but contributed to over a hundred more.
Note on signatures.
Her preferred location was generally the lower right-hand corner, as “Ruth Cobb” or “ruth cobb” sometimes boxed or enscrolled. Smaller drawings bore initials “r c” or perhaps nothing. In Edwardian times, the plates for Dollies etc were unsigned, while larger paintings gained a stylised slanting “R” within a “C”. Sketches for adults published then or as late as 1953 were signed “Ruth Cobb” in handwriting, with smaller items initialled.
Grateful thanks to The Society of Women Writers and Journalists for providing the picture of Ruth Cobb and for other kind assistance. David Redd.
I would like to add my thanks to David for sharing this very interesting article.
The Miss Mole cover image is from The Bamboo Bookcase, other images supplied by David Redd.
Update 25th October, 2015
David kindly sent along another example of Ruth’s work.
This plate is from The Collins’ Children’s Annual for 1925 which is currently available to purchase from eBay.