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A portrait of the artist Ruth Gervis: Founder Member

Ruth Gervis portrait
By kind permission of Nicolette Winterbottom

We are proud of the Museum's association with Ruth Gervis, art teacher and book illustrator. Born in 1894 the daughter of vicar William Champion Streatfeild and Janet Venn, one of her earliest memories was being given a new black bonnet somewhat incongruously trimmed with cherries on the occasion of Queen Victoria's death. She was the first-born of five siblings but suffered from asthma and was sent to live with her grandparents as a small child to remove her from the damp vicarage. There she was looked after by her father's old nurse, "Grand-nannie". In 1902 she returned to her family after they moved to St. Leonards, attending Hastings and St. Leonards Ladies College and then Laleham School in Eastbourne after moving again in 1911. After leaving school she continued to take art lessons from the very good teacher she had at St. Leonards, and when renewed asthma curtailed her nursing in WW1 she began teaching art in the many small schools in the vicinity. In 1915, she produced two plays with her sister Noel to support the war effort: Vingt et Un and When Daydreams End.

Sherborne Museum drawing
Sherborne Museum

After the war Ruth continued teaching and exhibited widely and then took over the studio and pupils of her original teacher, Miss McMunn. If the war had not intervened Ruth would have been expected to stay at home and help her mother run the parish, teach in Sunday school, help with the flowers and so on. The war altered women's role in society and Ruth was able to run and enjoy a very successful and profitable business, and due to the terrible carnage of young men in the war and not being of a romantic disposition, she never expected to marry especially as she felt herself to be totally undomesticated and unsuited for married life. In fact Shorland Gervis whom she married in 1928 had to do a lot of persuading! She was equally surprised when she found herself in the role of a mother.

Shor, as he was always known, was a science master at the Boys' School, and Ruth joined him in Sherborne in 1928 where they enjoyed family life at Nortons, The Avenue. She continued children's art classes at home and also took ladies sketching. Ruth became more widely known as a successful illustrator of children's books such as those by Paula Harris, Mary Treadgold, Kitty Barne and the Caravan Family series by Enid Blyton. She seized the chance of illustrating Noel Streatfeild's book Ballet Shoes in 1936 when Mabel Carey, children's editor for Dent and Sons Publishers, suggested she might be suitable without realising she was in fact Noel's older sister. The book is a favourite with many, including children's author Jacqueline Wilson, featuring the Fossil sisters and their life at a special school for children's performance. It was an inspired collaboration; it has been said that Ruth's drawings imprint forever on the readers' mind the definitive version of the three children, Pauline, Petrova and Posy. The book is still in print although Ruth's drawings now appear only in the Puffin paperback; the originals are held by the Centre for the Children's Book.

Pack Monday painting
Pack Monday: Photograph by Linda Atkinson

In 1931 Ruth became a founder member of Sherborne art club and later its Chairman and President. In 1941 she was asked to teach the art at Sherborne School as the art master was ill; he subsequently died and by 1941 she was in charge of the art department where she remained until 1953. Above all she wanted the boys to enjoy art and gain in confidence, but she also taught both the equivalent of O and A level art. She moved to a similar post at Lord Digby's school in 1953 until she retired in 1966.

After her husband died in 1968, Ruth became a founder member of the Museum, participating on its Council and taking a supporting role for twenty years. When widowed, being invited to join the Museum team gave her enormous pleasure, a much needed new interest and a circle of new friends; it was a huge addition to her long life for which she was always grateful. In 1988 when ill health became a problem, she moved to Oxford to be near her daughter, but sadly she died only a few days after moving into St. Luke's nursing home.

James Gibb described Ruth in an obituary as "great fun", with an infectious sense of humour, and of considerable courage, since late in life she visited her son Paul high in the Andes for several winters. She had strong principles, and yet was very tolerant of others' points of view. Her work for the Museum is still on display - a large panel "The Siege of Sherborne Castle" features prominently in the Gibb gallery; a frieze in Marsden illustrates Teddy Roe's band through the ages and we also have three large natural history collages in the gallery that now bears her name. Several of her paintings and the posters she made for various exhibitions are retained in the reserve collections.

Siege of Sherborne Castle
The Siege of Sherborne Castle (detail)

Elms in flower (1929)
Elms in flower (1929)

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