In an age before the camera became the principle means of social record and the flickering screen in every house monopolised domestic entertainment, the printed word in the form of daily and weekly journals still provided the man in the street with his window on the rest of the world. At the turn of the last century, Steven Spurrier, the son of a silversmith-designer based in the City, left a brief period of employment with his father to embark on a career as a fulltime illustrator. By the 1930s he was to become one of the nation’s most celebrated news artists, in constant demand by the leading papers and periodicals of the day. Throughout the Edwardian period Spurrier was a regular contributor to Madame Pearsons, Royal, and both The Daily & Weekly Graphic. He continued to paint full time, exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1906 with great success, culminating in the purchase of his 1913 exhibit ‘Afternoon’ by the Empress of Russia.
The outbreak of war found Spurrier serving as a Special Constable, however he lost no time in enlisting in the Artists’ Rifles before a weak heart thwarted his attempts to enter active service. In 1916 he was seconded to Military Intelligence to work with the Dock Police in Hull, continuing to record his experiences in his sketch books. His artistic talents were finally utilised by the War Office with his transfer to the navy as Dazzle Officer on the Clyde. While in Glasgow he was responsible for camouflaging the world’s first ‘flush deck’ aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, launched in 1918. After the war Spurrier joined the Illustrated London News and Graphic Weekly as ‘Special Artist’. By 1922 his fame as an artist had grown such that he was invited to contribute miniature drawings, complete with folio, to Queen Mary’s dolls house. Throughout the inter-war years Spurrier was every editor’s choice; his reputation for never missing a deadline, however short notice and his technical facility, mastering the demands of print reproduction, kept him constantly in work. His illustrative reportage was aided by a photographic memory that allowed him to sit through an important trial and produce an accurate account with only photographs of the empty court room and shots of the protagonists as a prompt.
It was also at this time that Laura Knight introduced Spurrier to the circus world. He became friendly with the Mills Brothers, following a ‘tenting’ season around the country with the Bertram Mills Circus for several years. Many of Spurrier’s most important works were inspired by the characters and atmosphere he encountered there, particularly the impressive figure of Frank Foster, the Mills’ Ring Master, who became a close friend. He illustrated Noel Streatfield’s ‘The Circus is Coming’ and wrote his own book for children on the subject. Ironically, although the circus became his great fascination, it was a kick from a performing horse that ultimately finished his career. Never fully recovering from the injury, Spurrier became bed ridden in later life, unable to work in his last years; he died at his home in St John’s Wood in 1961.
Spurrier had an innate talent for caricature and his many Royal Academy exhibits were often wickedly satirical, always incisive but never cruel. He was a great admirer of Thomas Rowlandson’s satires on regency life and felt he had a similar service to offer his twentieth century public.The publications he illustrated are too numerous to list but included most daily journals, magazines and periodicals and every issue of the Radio Times for several decades. He was a long serving Royal Academician and council member and a member of the Royal Society of British Artists whose galleries held the last exhibition before his death, opened by Sir Charles Wheeler PRA.
Amongst the many public galleries who have purchased his work most notable are the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Academy. His painting ‘Yellow Wash-Stand’ was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the Tate in 1940 and the National Portrait Gallery holds a portrait of Sir Frank Brangwyn. Steven Spurrier was as familiar to the British reading public between the wars as the celebrity reportage photographers are today. The bulk of his best commercial works are now largely lost to us as is the nature of the print medium, and consequently as subsequent generations grow up with different illustrators he has been largely forgotten. With the discovery of this wonderful collection of original drawings and inks and through the ensuing exhibitions, Panter & Hall intend to bring Spurrier’s remarkable talent to a new generation of collectors.