Talented in both draughtsmanship and watercolour painting, Helen Jacobs soon established herself as a children’s illustrator. Though best known for the precision, energy and imagination of her early fairy subjects, she responded well to a variety of commissions; and, as a primary teacher, she seemed an ideal interpreter of textbooks and primers.
Helen Jacobs was born in Ilford, Essex, on 10 October 1888, the daughter of the wharf manager, William Jacobs, and his second wife, Ellen (née Flory). The youngest member of the family, she had four half-siblings, the eldest of whom was the popular writer, W W Jacobs, and four siblings. She spent her childhood in Stoke Newington, London, at addresses that included 112 Manor Road (by 1891) and 3 Paradise Row (by 1901).
Jacobs studied under Arthur Legge at the art school of the West Ham Municipal College. While there, in 1910, she contributed a box, painted with characteristic fairies, to the National Competitions of Schools of Art, which was illustrated in The Studio.
From that year, she began to exhibit watercolours at mixed exhibitions, including those organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours and the Dudley Gallery. It may be assumed that, as a member of the British Watercolour Society, she was also represented in its exhibitions. In addition, she produced a series of drawings of species of moth for the entomologist, Lord Rothschild.
Jacobs quickly established herself as a children’s illustrator, working mainly in watercolour and pen and ink. She contributed to annuals (including Pip & Squeak and Playbox) and periodicals (including The Sunday Fairy), while responding increasingly to commissions from major publishers, most notably Harrap.
While beginning to establish herself, in the years 1911-12, Jacobs had lived with her sister, Florence, at Carisbrooke, Osborne Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex. However, by 1914, she had returned to London and settled in Winchmore Hill, living at 34 Queen’s Avenue by 1917, and remaining there until her death.
In her later years, Jacobs taught at a primary school in Stoke Newington, and turned to illustrating school books and primers. These included frequent collaborations with her friend Stella Mead (‘The Open Road’ series, and other Nisbet publications, and later titles published by the University of London Press) and some with Constance M Martin (particularly the ‘Riverside Readers’, published by Philip & Tacey). The pedagogic material led to a move away from the precise beauty of her early fairy watercolours to a brighter, bolder graphic style.