Bruce Bairnsfather

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Photo of the author, 1918, by Pirie MacDonald

Captain (Charles) Bruce Bairnsfather (9 July 1887 – 29 September 1959) 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.

Early life[edit]

Born to a military family in Murree, British India (now Pakistan), 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 Military 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. Working in this capacity for the Old Memorial Theatre, Stratford, brought him into acquaintance with Marie Corelli, who introduced him to Thomas Lipton, a connection that led to commissions to draw advertising sketches for Lipton tea, Player's cigarettes, Keen's Mustard, and Beecham's Pills.

World War I service[edit]

"Old Bill", from Bullets & Billets: "First Discovered in the Alluvial Deposits of Southern Flanders. Feeds Almost Exclusively on Jam and Water Biscuits. Hobby: Filling Sandbags, on Dark and Rainy Nights".

In 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant and served with a machine gun unit in France until 1915, when he was hospitalised with shellshock 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. The best remembered of these shows Bill with another trooper in a muddy shell hole with shells whizzing all around. The other trooper is grumbling and Bill advises:

.

Many of his cartoons from this period were collected in Fragments From France (1914) and the autobiographical Bullets & Billets (1916).[1]

Despite the immense popularity with the troops and massive sales increase for the Bystander, initially there were objections to the "vulgar caricature". Nevertheless, their success in raising morale led to Bairnsfather's promotion and receipt of a War Office appointment to draw similar cartoons for other Allies forces.

Post-World War I[edit]

In 1921 Bairnsfather married Cecilia Agnes Scott.

"Old Bill" and Bairnsfather himself continued in popularity between the World Wars. Many police officers of the time had similar facial hair, and that may have led to British police being referred to as "The Bill".[citation needed] Bairnsfather was the subject of one of the first British sound films in 1927, wrote and directed the 1928 Canadian film Carry On Sergeant,[citation needed] and took part in the early Alexandra Palace television transmissions in 1936. Old Bill appeared in numerous books, plays, musicals and films. In 1939 he published an autobiography, "Wide Canvas".[2]

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, whilst 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".[3] He died in 1959 of complications of bladder cancer, in Worcester.

"The Growth of Democracy" by Bruce Bairnsfather (1917). "Colonel Sir Valtravers Plantagenet gladly accepts a light, during a slight lull in a barrage, from a private in the Benin Rifles".

Legacy[edit]

A commemorative blue plaque appears outside one of his old studios, 1 Sterling Street, Knightsbridge London (51°29′58″N 0°10′01″W / 51.4995°N 0.16686°W / 51.4995; -0.16686).[4] The blue plaque was initiated by Tonie and Valmai Holt who later wrote Bairnsfather's biography (In Search of the Better Ole - the Life, the Works and the Collectables of Bruce Bairnsfather) and also sponsored a memorial plaque to Bairnsfather on the cottage at St Yvon in Belgium at the edge of Plugstreet Wood where Bairnsfather drew his first 'trench' cartoons.

A plaque commemorating Bruce Bairnsfather was unveiled at his former home, Victoria Spa Lodge, Bishopton, Stratford upon Avon (52°12′18″N 1°43′52″W / 52.205018°N 1.731122°W / 52.205018; -1.731122) on 10 September 2005 by cartoonist Bill Tidy.[5] The plaque was instigated by Mark Warby, Editor of The Old Bill Newsletter, the official journal for Bairnsfather enthusiasts and collectors.

On 24 September 2011 a plaque commemorating Bruce Bairnsfather was unveiled on the wall of Colwall Royal British Legion Club in Crescent Road, Colwall, near Malvern in Worcestershire. The plaque was instigated by the Colwall Village Society and was unveiled by Mark Warby. Bairnsfather lived in Colwall from 1951 to 1954 and was well-known at the British Legion Club in the village.

Bill & Alphie's, the Royal Military College of Canada's on-campus cadet pub in Kingston, Ontario is named after Bruce Bairnsfather's Great War cartoon characters. Yeo Hall at the College of Canada features sculptures of Bill and Alphie. There is a large mural drawn on the wall of the main staircase in the Royal British Legion Victory House Club in Ludlow, Shropshire.

References[edit]

  • Mark Bryant, "Bairnsfather, (Charles) Bruce (1887–1959)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006 accessed 2 July 2007
  1. ^ Bullets & Billets at Project Gutenberg
  2. ^ Bairnsfather, Bruce (1939). Wide Canvas: An Autobiography. London: John Long. p. 252. 
  3. ^ Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather: Creator Of "Old Bill", The Times, 30 Sep 1959
  4. ^ "Bruce Bairnsfather plaque in London". OpenPlaques. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  5. ^ "Bishopton 2005 Reunion". brucebairnsfather.org. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 

Tonie and Valmai Holt, In Search of the Better 'Ole, A Biography of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, including a listing of his Works and Collectables, Pen and Sword Books, 2001, ISBN 0 85052 764-3

Filmography[edit]

External links[edit]