Artist’s Work in the Collection
Bruce Bairnsfather was a prominent British humorist and cartoonist. His best-known cartoon character is Old Bill. Bill and his pals Bert and Alf featured in Bairnsfather’s weekly “Fragments from France” cartoons published weekly in “The Bystander” magazine during the First World War.
He was born to a military family in Murree, British India (now Pakistan) on 9 July 1887. He spent his early life in India, but was brought to England in 1895 to be educated at the United Services College, Westward Ho!, then at Stratford-upon-Avon. Initially intending a military career, he failed entrance exams to Sandhurst and Woolwich Academies but joined the Cheshire Regiment.
He resigned in 1907 to become an artist, studying at the John Hassall School of Art. Unsuccessful at first, he worked as an electrical engineer and began work at the Old Memorial Theatre, Stratford. He met many influential people in this position, and was introduced to Thomas Lipton, a connection that led to paid work drawing advertising sketches for Lipton tea, Player’s cigarettes, Keen’s Mustard, and Beecham’s Pills.
In 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and served with a machine gun unit in France until 1915, when he was hospitalized with shell shock and hearing damage sustained during the Second Battle of Ypres. Posted to the 34th Division headquarters on Salisbury Plain, he developed his humorous series for the Bystander about life in the trenches, featuring “Old Bill”, a curmudgeonly soldier with trademark walrus moustache and balaclava and his sidekick Alf.
The series was immensely popular with the troops and provided a massive sales increase for the Bystander. Based on this success and the help in raising morale, Bairnsfather received a promotion and receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allied forces.
In World War II, he continued Old Bill work, but was not asked to help with the British war effort. Instead, he became official cartoonist to the American forces in Europe, contributing to Stars and Stripes and Yank, while residing at Cresswell House in Clun, Shropshire. He also drew cartoons at American bases and nose art on aircraft. His works are considered to have influenced artists such as Bill Mauldin.
In later life, he had found himself typecast as the creator of Old Bill, and his Times obituary concluded of his career that he was “fortunate in possessing a talent … which suited almost to the point of genius one particular moment and one particular set of circumstances; and he was unfortunate in that he was never able to adapt, at all happily, his talent to new times and new circumstances”. He died in 29 September 1959 of complications of bladder cancer, in Worcester.
Needlework & Pottery
Posters & Prints
Bullets & Billets, Bruce Bairnsfather, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, The Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1917
Fragments from France, Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917
Bairnsfather: A Few Fragments from His Life, Collected by A Friend, Critical Chapters by Vivian Carter, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, London, Published for “The Bystander” by Hodder & Stoughton, 1920
Carry on Sergeant!, Bruce Bairnsfather, The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers, New York, 1927
In Search of the Better ‘Ole A Biography of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, Including a Listing of his Works and Collectables, Tonie and Valmai Holt, Leo Cooper from the 1985 Milestone Publication, 2001