(* 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.
"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."
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.