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Saturday, November 06, 2010

R. A. Osborne

(* Originally published 5 January 2010, but now expanded and with some additional illustrations.)

Anyone who has been looking closely at the various cover galleries that have gone up over the past year  has probably noticed one name cropping up a number of times: that of cover artist R. A. Osborne. His name is inextricably linked with Digit Books as he was, I believe, their art director and their most prolific cover artist. Given the number of excellent covers he produced over the years, I was surprised that virtually nothing was known about him.

Robert A. Osborne—his work usually signed Osborne or R.A.O.—lived all his working life in Brixton. He was living at 81 Brixton Hill Court, London S.W.2 in 1946; ten years later he was at number 128 Brixton Hill Court, a large block of flats in Brixton in the Borough of Lambeth. Osborne was at the same address until the 1974 telephone directory was published, listed for many years as a commercial artist.

I believe he was Robert Adolphus Osborne, born 16 August 1923, whose death was registered in Croydon in the third quarter of 1973. This does pose something of a mystery, as there was no Robert A. Osborne in the registered birth for the period in which Robert Adolphus was born. However, as anyone who has compiled their family tree (or read Bear Alley for any length of time) knows, name changes are not unusual.

Our artist was born Robert E.—the 'E' almost certainly standing for Ewart—Osborne, and his birth was registered in Lambeth in 3Q 1923.

Why the change of name? For a possible (but probable) explanation we have to turn to Robert's father, Ewart Nalder Osborne, born on 26 February 1898, the son of Thomas Nalder Osborne, a commissionaire. Working as a cycle mechanic when the Great War began, he joined the 18th Res. Battery Royal Field Artillery in February 1915 and was sent to France as part of the Expeditionary Force. However, he spent only three months in France but was thrown from his horse, resulting in him losing consciousness and suffering from convulsions. In hospital he began suffering fits, a recurrence of chorea (an involuntary movement disorder) which had developed after an accident at Crystal Palace some five years earlier. A medical board examination concluded that his chorea was aggravated by active service and he was considered no longer fit for duty and discharged in March 1916.

Ewart was working as a typewriter dealer and living in Stockwell when he married  Rosalie Mable Wakefield (1895- ) at St. Mary, Balham, on 31 August 1918. Rosalie petitioned for divorce in 1927 and Ewart Osborne married Jane Margaret Crampton (1905-1982) in 1928, having already had two children with her.

Here I will hand over to Jane Purcell, grand-daughter of Ewart and Jane, who recalls: "My grandmother Jane told me of Ewart having had a previous marriage and a child. She referred to Rosalie as Rosy and always expressed her concern for her as she was apparently deaf. On reading that Robert was born in the 1923 and mother's birth was in October 1924, I now realise that Rosalie had been deserted and left with a little baby. This comes as no surprise as Ewart went on to have five children with my grandmother and deserted them all when the last baby, Mornington Montague (such wonderful names) was only a few months old. Jane had no option but to go to the workhouse in Leytonstone and from thereon all her children grew up in homes (Shirley, Croydon).

"My Mother has always smiled at the memory of Ewart visiting all the children in the home. He arrived in a Bentley and presented them with a pineapple, patted them all on the head and referred to them all as Herbert! She still refers to him as Daddy."

Ewart had deserted his wife for his secretary, Kathleen Mary James (1910-1995), in around 1931 and had a further five children, although it was some years before they were married in Edmonton in 1955. Ewart died in Barnstable, Devon, in 1980.

Rosalie, Robert's mother, also re-married—to Henry Ernest J. Burton in 1928—although Robert retained his surname. Rosalie also had a change of middle name: her death is registered in Waltham Forest in 1979 as Rosalie Maud Burton. Her husband died three years later. Robert would appear to have had the stability of a family life that was denied to some of Ewart's children.

Family aside, there is still very little known about Robert A. Osborne. He appears to have launched his career drawing for Gaywood Press in 1950, adopting the pen-name Leroi in 1951-52 for some of his work. He may also have been responsible for the covers for World Distributors' 'World Fantasy Classics' series in 1950-51.

From 1952, Osborne began producing covers for the newly founded Corgi Books and worked for them until 1958. That same year, he began producing dozens of extraordinary covers that graced titles from Digit Books. His war covers were especially powerful, making the best use of his talent for drawing human figures and expressive faces. After 1958, his only known cover outside of Digit was a single piece for Ace Books (the British imprint of Harborough Publishing Co. not the American publisher) in 1960.

The images here are a very small selection of Osborne's work.


  1. Steve: you have just shed more light on my Great Grand Father, Ewart, than I could have imagined. My mother googled his name out of interest and stumbled upon your site. How did you manage to find out so much information? R.A.O is my Grand Mother's half Brother.

    Strangely enough, I live about a mile from where R.A.O lived.



  2. Hi Jamie (and hi to Jamie's mum!),

    If you can shed any more light on Robert's career I'd love to hear about it. Drop me a line: my direct e-mail address is below the photo top-left. I may have some further notes on Ewart.

  3. Ewart Nalder OSBORNE was my late Grandfather.He in fact died in Barnstaple home town.
    I was his eldest Grandson with Kathleen,i was born in November 1952.My recently late Mum was his second daughter,two other survive as does his elder son from this union.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the additional information. I have to confess that the whole premise that artist R.A.O. was actually Robert E. Osborne was a bit of a guess when I wrote this piece five years ago. I suspect that's not the case now and that the Robert E. Osborne I mentioned who was born in 1923 died in 1928, aged 5.

  5. My Uncle is called Ewart Trevor Osborne he was born on March 9th 1936 in Paddington London he was christened in Westminster Cathedral later that year.He is the third child of the union.Sadly his youngest brother passed away in April 1962.
    Trevor has lived in Western Austalia since the Autumn of 1957. He is now 81 years of age and keeping well.

  6. Ewart nalder osborne children from kathleen his third wife.
    Marianne 2.4.1931 rhona (my mum) 5 1 1934
    Ewart trevor 9.3.1936 faye 15.3.1938
    graham 21.9.1939

  7. Ewart n Osborne and Kathleen and younger son laid to rest in a triple unmarked grave in bear street cemetery Barnstaple.

  8. Ewart was the Chairman of Devon Paints Ltd in the 1950s.He sold his paint in John Lewis shops and also it was send out by rail and road nationally at that time.It was used in many National Trust properties,The Oval and royal Palaces.
    He used to advertise regularly in the National newspapers so the word spread.
    The bank he used was Coutts...the royal bank.

  9. Kathleen died sept 1 1995 so a widow along time,I was living with her at that time,she had only been ill a few days and was still driving her car til a few days before.

  10. Ewarts(Grandads) oldest daughter from his third marriage was born in 1931 tomorrows date but sadly she passed a few weeks ago. RIP MH.

  11. Ewart and Kathleen married todays date in 1955 in Edmonton.