CAPTAIN BRUCE BAIRNSFATHER

                    The most famous  cartoonist of the First World War                   

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                        Creator of Old Bill and the Better 'Ole

Royal Warwickshire Regiment

A Picture Story - in no particular order

To see full details of Bairnsfather's biography - 'In Search of the Better 'Ole' please click here

Bruce Bairnsfather in the uniform of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment around 1914 Bruce Bairnsfather during the Christmas Truce at St Yvon in 1914 Bruce Bairnsfather in his studio in New York in 1926
Bairnsfather in the uniform of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He served at the same time as AA Milne and Bernard Law Montgomery. This picture was taken near St Yvon in Belgium at Christmas 1914. Bairnsfather took part in the Truce and both drew and wrote about it later. Bairnsfather in 1926 in his studio in New York working on the Warner Brother's film 'The Better Ole' which featured Syd Chaplin. Darryl Zanuck wrote the screenplay. The film, which was silent, consisted of ten reels, eight of which are preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington.
Bruce Bairnsfather portrait in USAAF uniform in the 1940s by his friend Barribal
This watercolour of Bairnsfather was painted by his friend Barribal while Bairnsfather was the official cartoonist to the American 8th Airforce during the Second World War. Bairnsfather's appointment was in 1942 in Northern Ireland and following that he moved to the UK and joined the US 305 Bomb Group at Chelveston where he drew everything from murals for the Officers Mess to nose art for the B17 bombers. One bomber, named Old Bill, managed to return from a raid with the most damage that any previous aircraft had survived, including losing the nosecone. So famous was the aircraft that it appeared in the HMSO official publication Target Germany. Bairnsfather continued to contribute to 'Illustrated', 'Yank' and 'Stars and Stripes'.
Bruce Bairnsfather was born in Murree in India in 1873 to an Army family. Educated at Stratford Ho! (Rudyard Kipling's old school) he proved a poor student - more interested in scribbling caricatures of his masters than in passing his exams. Eventually he scraped through the Army entrance exam and enlisted in the Militia - which he hated. He then studied at commercial art school but re-enlisted with the Royal Warwickshires when war broke out in 1914. Serving in the mud and misery of the trenches of the infamous Plugstreet Wood he started drawing cartoons which realistically and yet humorously depicted the appalling conditions of the trenches. They were soon published as the series that came to be known as FRAGMENTS FROM FRANCE and they were an immediate roaring success. Soon his principal character, a phlegmatic, moustachio-ed soldier known as 'Old Bill', was immortalised in the famous situation of 'The Better 'Ole' and reproduced on pottery, on postcards, playing cards, in books, plays, films, in the UK, North America and indeed world-wide. There followed an extraordinary career. Yet Bairnsfather died in obscurity and relative poverty and although Gen Sir Ian Hamilton called him 'The Man Who Won the War' and he was courted by the Secret Service, he received no official award from his country for his evident genius in raising the morale of the Nation during the Great War.
 
One of Bairnsfather's many books, this one done during hs time with the US 'Mighty Eighth' Airforce Bairnsfather drew many strip cartoons particularly in America. Old Bill and Bert appeared in the Passing Show Magazine and on postcards Bairnsfher's Old Bill became a central character of his work and this is a jig saw puzzle with Bill saying 'Where does this blinkin bit go'. We have this jig saw - and one piece is missing! The Bystander Magazine published Bairnsfather's first cartoon in 1915.
In WW2 Bairnsfather lived amongst the Americans of the 8th Airforce and drew for The Stars and Stripes. He did two books which stemmed from his time with the Americans - one was called 'Jeeps and Jests' and the second was this one, 'No Kiddin'!'. Both were published by Putnams of New York and this one cost $2. The inside cover page shows a photo of the B27 Old Bill with its nose blown off. Though Bairnsfather is linked in most minds with the First World War he continued to draw until his death in 1959 and his output was prodigious. The 'Old Bill and Bert' series of drawings evolved around 1935 and were drawn for the Passing Show magazine and then produced by Rafael Tuck & Sons as postcards - as shown here which is 'Humorous Postcard No.5090.

An extraordinary range of products were produced using Bairnsfather's cartoons. These ranged from various editions of the cartoons themselves both individually and as collections, through entire crockery sets, playing cards, postcards, car mascots, collecting boxes, brass ashtrays and much more including jig saws.

'Now where does this blinkin' bit go' is missing one piece - deliberately?

Bairnsfather's first published cartoon was in the Bystander in 1915 and he contributed to it on a regular basis, his cartoons then being collected into the 'Fragments from France' that are so well known.

This 1918 Annual has another BB drawing inside and contributions from luminaries such as Harold Earnshaw, Bert Thomas, Marcel Poncin, Will Owen, Alfred Leete, Studdy and Heath Robinson.

Mable Lucie Attwell is not alone in using Bairnsfather's ideas. Many modern cartoonists still do.

BB's ideas were much copied and used by other artists. This is a postcard by Valentine's and the drawing is by the well known children's book illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell.

At least here Mabel Lucie has used the idea of the Better 'Ole and not done a poor attempt to 'copy' a Bairnsfather drawing as in the unsigned and crude card 'Who made that hole, Bill?', below. The card, posted in 1920 claims to be of 'Entirely British Manufacture' but neither the artist nor the publisher are identified. The answer 'Rabbits' is a substitute for Bairnsfather's original, 'Mice'.

BB drew for many American papers & Magazines. He toured extensively around the USA giving chalk and talk lectures to places as diverse as Carnegie Hall and West Point. Vitaphone recorded one of his talks in 1927 and the original discs are in the Library of Congress. This drawing was done for The New Yorker and is quite different in style to his 'British' cartoons.

Another take on one of Bairnsfather's early cartoons - the original answer was 'mice'. All of Bairnsfather's early 'Fragments' cartoons appeared on postcards and were sold in sets of six

 The six postcards on the left are the originals from the packet above. Bairnsfather's work is much collected and an original packet in fine condition and complete with its cards would fetch a good price. The cards were first issued in 1917 by which time the Fragments from France collection of cartoons was approaching its two millionth printing.

A typical Bairnsfather signature in an autograph book

Bairnsfather was extraordinarily well known. Wherever he went he was always being asked to draw Old Bill which he did on anything available. Many moons ago we had a pizza with Bill Tidy after a recording of the tv programme Quick on the Draw, and Bill did 'Old Bill' on a table napkin for us. We lost it to our shame.

One way of preserving autographs was to collect them in a special album and Bairnsfather must have signed hundreds. He reduced Old Bill to eyes, nose and whiskers as here. Also in this book from the 1930s are Gracie Fields, General Montgomery, Stan Laurel, Bud Flanagan and John Gielgud

This Bairnsfather book was published in 1939 and includes well drawn cartoons of Hitler and others

In 1938, as a new war seemed on the way, Bruce was very busy. He was completing his autobiography, Wide Canvas, and through his London agents Curtis Brown was discussing a recruiting poster for the War Office, two more books for Hutchinson and a film for Alexander Korda.

In April 1939 Hutchinson published Old Bill Stands By, An Old Friend in a New Emergency. It was a thin paperback of just 36 pages. Old Bill had aged but his popularity had not. As the picture shows the volume had to be re-printed and finally sold over 20,000 copies.

A typical Bairnsfather drawing probably done as a Commission for a small fee in 1952.

After the Second World War Old Bill was out of a job. Bruce submitted an oil painting to the Royal Academy in 1945 which was turned down. No doubt the authorities considered the work as merely that of a 'cartoonist' and not, as his family described his early work, 'that of a real painter'.

Bruce was reduced to fulfilling small commissions such as this Christmas dinner menu in 1952 for 'Farval and Denco Annual Christmas Party.'

Bruce Bairnsfather's last published cartoon

 

This is Bairnsfather's last published drawing. It appeared  in the Birmingham Weekly Post and Midland Pictorial on the 16 January 1959. It was prophetic. He died in September.

Despite the huge morale effect that his cartoons gave to the Tommies at the Front and the Public back at Home, Bairnsfather was never 'rewarded' by the Establishment. But those who 'knew' ie. those who lived through the First World War and whose spirits were lifted by Old Bill and Bert and Alf, had no doubt. Mrs Evelyn Phillips, the daughter of an Old Contemptible, told us in 1979 -

In the 1914-18 war one had to rely on the very simple things in life and many hardships came our way and when a young Captain in the Army called Bruce Bairnsfather came known to young and all by his Old Bill, bewiskered, down to earth, dear little fat soldier at war we all began to smile - laugh and cheer. My father said that he should have received the V.C. for services rendered to all of us.

On the 100th Anniversary of Bairnsfather's birth, we and fellow collector Peter Johnson, with the support of the Chairman and Directors, put on an exhibition of the artist's work and associated articles at Phillips in Blenheim Street London. It was very popular.

In 2003 we funded and erected a commemorative plaque to Bairnsfather on the cottage at St Yvon where he drew his first war cartoons and in 2009 published a new edition of our 'Best of Fragments from France' from which all of our Royalties will go to the Help for Heroes Charity.?>

The earliest known survivor of Bruce Bairnsfather's WW1 cartoons

Click the picture to buy the book

'In Search of the Better 'Ole' which has 150 illustrations plus many line drawings.

A hardback, it comes with a dust cover.

The drawing on the left is the earliest known existing example of his First World War cartoons.