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William Stobbs A Children’s Illustrator

February 13, 2013

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William Stobbs was born in South Shields in 1914, and raised near the same North Sea that later figured in many of his drawings, Stobbs graduated from the Durham School of Art in 1938. A year later he signed on as a draughtsman in the Rolls-Royce firm, where he was involved in the development of Merlin engines. After the war he worked briefly for Alvis before becoming head of the design department at the London School of Printing and Graphic Art. This was followed in 1958 by a twenty-one year stint as Principal of Maidstone College of Art.  I like the lofty expression on his cats and particularly the hard stare of his sleek and silvery Siamese.

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His first experience as an illustrator was on Hakluyt’s Sea Stories(1948), a child-friendly version prepared by Ronald Syme. Very soon Stobbs’ fascination with detail and his capacity for meticulous research made him a favourite with other children’s historical novelists, at a time when such novels were still expected to maintain consistently high standards of accuracy in text and pictures. Six years later, he illustrated Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader, winner of the Library Association’s 1955 Carnegie Medal for the outstanding book of the year. Few doubted that this decision was also influenced by the brilliance of this now forgotten novel’s accompanying pictures.

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In 1959 Stobbs won the Kate Greenaway Medal, this time for his colour illustrations for Chekhov’s Kashtanka, a translation of one of the author’s dog stories, and for his drawings in Ruth Manning-Sanders’ compilation A Bundle of Ballads. The same compiler later co-operated with Stobbs on Damian and the Dragon; Folk and Fairy Tales from Greece (1965). His drawings of maidens and their suitors appear somewhat wooden, as if they were inanimate objects rather than living characters. The sense of detail though is as always superb, with what initially look like thick black lines gradually revealing an intricacy of texture and decoration. Only some of the larger illustrations fail to work, with too many swirling shapes making for a sense of confusion. As an illustrator of black and white vignettes however, he remained by now the clear leader of the field.

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William Stobbs illustrated over a hundred books for children, (some listed here), all witness to his own distinctive standard of artistic integrity. His sensitivity to the subject matter in hand made him much in demand from publishers, whether illustrating nursery rhymes, fairy tale anthologies or historical fiction. Stocky and broad shouldered, as befitted an ex-student boxer, he actually possessed a sly sense of humour never far away from his work for younger children. Sadly William passed away in 2000, leaving behind a wealth of amazing illustration.

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Many thanks to N Tucker for the description of the life of William Stobbs, that made this blogpost possible.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2013 10:35 am

    Smashing: illustrators still don’t get the coverage and recognition they deserve- working to a brief and making it all fabbo over and over again for years is bloody difficult.

    • February 13, 2013 3:09 pm

      I agree. Hopefully through the blog I’m aiming to give some of these illustrators the coverage and promotion they deserve, even if they’re no longer with us. Skilled design or illustration, and high levels of beautiful illustration is indeed a hard task to maintain. They deserve all the praise we can give 🙂

    • Peter Hansen permalink
      March 26, 2013 11:12 am

      Like many, many children’s illustrators Wiliam Stobbs was also a childrens comic artist. First works appeared in the now famous Eagle comic (Dan Dare) during the first year of it’s publication in 1950. He illustrated the life of Hernando Cortez in colour, and this was the precursor to a lifetime of historical illustrations in books in particular for Symes.

      • March 26, 2013 12:17 pm

        Hi Peter. I didn’t realise William had a comic book connection. Thanks for the additional information, much obliged.

  2. February 13, 2013 7:03 pm

    I like the work by this artist. I don’t have any books illustrated by Stobbs, but will add his name to the list when I’m out thrifting. BTW, I’m really liking all the posts you do on vintage children’s books and all the great images you show.

    • February 13, 2013 7:19 pm

      Thanks Jil, if we lived a little nearer I’d want to come round and look through your bookshelves lol We share a mutual appreciation for a similar era I think. Keep up your great blog too.

  3. February 15, 2013 10:05 am

    I just love these whimsical cats and proud. And that bitch is wonderful. I really love this illustrator, thanks for helping me know.

  4. February 15, 2013 11:03 am

    Oh his work is absolutely lovely; I especially like his cats – full of character and individuality. I wonder if Harry Hill ever saw the illustration of the blue cat – remember his cat (called Stoofer I think !) Of course I always think if Kathleen Hale for cat illustrations (Orlando) but I’m so glad to be introduced to William Stobbs. They have a very familiar style – am sure I had one or two books as a child that might have been his work. Thanks for a fab post !

  5. Mirabelle permalink
    March 5, 2013 3:20 pm

    Harry Hill may well have been aware of William Stobbs cats. As he lived about 6 miles away from the illustrator / author as a child. Harry and some of William’s children attended the same school. So although I cannot confirm for certain, I imagine that you are spot of with that observation!

    Thank you Fish ink for your blog. It is wonderful.

    • March 5, 2013 9:15 pm

      How very interesting to note. I always appreciate extra info about the subjects of my blogs, so many thanks for the insider knowledge. Great to hear from you Mirabelle, so pleased that you’ve found your way here. Don’t forget to tell your friends too. Thanks Craig

  6. Jo Stobbs permalink
    April 25, 2014 7:56 am

    Lovely page Fishink – there will be a small exhibition, celebration of 100 years of Bill Stobbs work in the – 13 July – 11-5pm – you are welcome to come along

    • April 25, 2014 11:49 am

      Many thanks for the information Jo. If I’m around London at the time, I’ll certainly pop in. Hope all goes well, send me some photos and I’ll mention it at the time.

    • April 25, 2014 11:58 am

      Should I assume that you’re a relative of Bill ? If you’ve any information or images that haven’t been seen online before I’d be more than happy to put another blog piece together with your help.

    • Richard Verrill permalink
      February 19, 2015 11:31 am

      Jo, are you a relation to Bill, if so I believe I have a family connection with Brenda his first wife. I have fond memories of his Christmas cards. Regards Richard

  7. June 27, 2014 7:21 am

    Excellent I came to his work via the illustrations he did in the works of Ronald Welch (currently being reprinted by the way by Slightly Foxed) as a 12 year old they formed an indelible impression…

    • June 27, 2014 7:47 am

      Thanks Steve, fab to get to revisit feelings of being twelve again : ) Appreciate your comment.

  8. September 7, 2016 9:32 pm

    Lovely done piece, Craig – thank you.

  9. January 23, 2017 11:08 pm

    Very glad to find this. I am currently reading Henry Treece’s The Golden One to my children (8 and 11), my own favourite book aged 12, and we’ve been admiring Stobbs’ inkpen illustrations, a fabulous conjuncture of decorative swirl and historical fact. This fills out my knowledge of Stobbs really usefully.

    • January 24, 2017 8:59 am

      Thanks for your comment Ben, great to hear the post was useful from a storytelling perspective : ) Happy reading.

  10. Claire Morgan permalink
    March 16, 2019 7:34 pm

    so excited to find your blog! I remember the Stobbs cats very well, as my mother cut out silhouettes modelled on the cats to stick on my bedroom walls. I didn’t know the name of the author or illustrator, though, as she borrowed the book from the library. I was amazed to find it featured in the British Library exhibition on cats and so now can look out for it.

    • March 17, 2019 8:03 am

      Hi Claire, welcome and thanks for your comments. How fab to find an old childhood friend here too lol great to hear, enjoy reading.

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