OBITUARY: Catherine Cobb by Alan Powers
Published in the Independent Thursday 12 October 1995
(illustrated by her granddaughter Abi Cochran)
The study of the crafts in 20th-century England requires, beyond knowledge of objects, a knowledge of people and their activities away from the workbench. The life of Catherine Cobb spanned nearly the whole century and her craft career, from initiation into jewellery-making on the floor underneath her mother's workbench to the classes she was teaching in Cambridge within a month of her death, was nearly as long. Besides this she was a puppeteer and examiner in art all over the world.
As the daughter of the bookbinder Douglas Cockerell and his wife Florence Arundel (who died when she was a child), she was born into an Arts and Crafts household. There was a photograph of William Morris in the hall of the Cockerells' house in Letchworth and she assumed for years that he must have been one of the distinguished bearded visitors, although she was born seven years too late. Her uncle Sir Sydney Cockerell knew Morris and John Ruskin. She never doubted that the crafts were "a perfectly reasonable way to spend one's life".
"Casty" Cockerell learnt her craft of jewellery and silversmithing at the Central School, in London, where she joined some lively students who were experimenting with block- printing textiles. One of these, Joyce Clissold, became a firm friend and Casty had space in the Footprints textile workshop which Clissold took over from its founders. Casty found some Punch and Judy puppets in her family attic, Clissold printed fabric for a "set-up" and in the summers of the Thirties they took their Punch and Judy show on tour, around Buckinghamshire and along the south coast.
There were many adventures retailed in Clissold's diaries, which were lent by Casty Cobb for the exhibition "Bold Impressions" which recently opened at Central St Martin's Lethaby Gallery. She also assisted the sculptor William Simmonds with his marionette theatre, remembered with awe by the few lucky enough to see it, helping to pass the puppets on and off while the illustrator Barnett Freedman provided music with his violin.
Casty Cobb's work falls into three categories. There were pieces of jewellery, typically of a slightly improvised nature using objets trouves like quartz from a Scottish stream-bed and materials of low value found by rummaging in suppliers' boxes in Clerkenwell Road. She had a fondness for the clear, bright and transparent and no aversion to theatricality. Among her recent productions were necklaces with black, white and red beads on brass safety pins. Another line of work was to supply silver clasps and other ornaments for bookbindings from the Cockerell bindery which was carried on by her brother Sydney.
Perhaps her most individual contribution to the crafts of her time was in silver pique work on ivory and ebony. This consists of hammering silver wire into holes pierced in the base material to make little silver points, arranged in simple patterns. She made ivory boxes and cruet sets but most particularly cutlery. It was after the war that she realised the likely demand for fine stainless steel knives to go with old silver, when servants to clean knife blades no longer existed. She made knives and forks, with steel elements forged in Sheffield to her design, to which she added her delightful and distinctive pique handles.
In 1937 Casty married Arthur Cobb and encouraged him in setting up the Forest School Camps Group. When her children had grown up, she began examining in art for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, often travelling with the potter Charlotte Bawden. She was sent to Malaya, Africa and India, recalling, "We pulled up the standard. They were always willing to listen to us, and we had a good deal to say."
The Cobbs moved to Cambridge during the Second World War and Casty taught drawing and design as well as jewellery at Cambridge Technical College. She later held a jewellery class at her house in Trumpington without any thought of retiring even after reaching 90, sharing the benefits of her excellent collection of tools as well as a sense of the pleasure and excitement of the activity itself, overlooked by Joyce Clissold's fabric collage pictures of some of their shared adventures.
Cobb was a member of the Art Workers Guild. Her work is represented in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
Catherine Anne Cockerell, jeweller and silversmith: born 28 March 1903; married 1937 Arthur Cobb (died 1984; one son, three daughters); died Cambridge 17 September 1995.