Monday, April 6, 2009

In Search of the Better 'Ole - Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1959)

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (BB) was the most famous cartoonist of The First World War. His cartoons of the soldiers and their life in the trenches, in which he served himself in Belgium, made them and the Nation laugh. But because he showed the men and the battlefields as they really were - dirty, generally fed-up and surrounded by the destruction caused by shelling - the Establishment disapproved of his work and he was never formally recognised.

29 September 2009 is the 50th Anniversary of Bairnsfather's death. In a next post, I'll tell more about this event. I recommend to read his biography, written by Mr en Mrs Holt, whom I had the pleasure to meet last week in Ypres.

from left to right:
Dominiek Dendooven (In Flanders Fields Museum Staff),
me, Valmai and Tonie - 1 April 2009

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment created what is probably the most famous and most copied cartoon of all time ¬'The Better 'Ole' -which is featured on the cover of this book.
Bairnsfather drew cartoons to amuse his soldiers and to keep up their and his spirits in the mud and cold of Flanders. His drawings were published in the Bystander magazine and became an instant success, selling in hundreds of thousands and making nations laugh. His effect on the morale of the Tommy was such that other countries such as France, Italy, America, Australia and Canada asked that he should visit their lines and draw their men too, while the British Secret Service considered using him for propaganda purposes.
The Bystander organization marketed Bairnsfather's work much as popular TV programmes and films are promoted today. There were special editions, collected editions, prints and postcards. Grimwades, the pottery people, produced plates and cups, teapots and cheese dishes, and busts of Bairnsfather's most popular character, Old Bill, were made in pottery and in metal as car mascots. All of these are sought today by enthusiastic collectors around the world.
Bairnsfather wrote many books and plays and worked with Charles Cochran, Seymour Hicks, Sydney Chaplain and John Mills and his films were seen in Britain and America.
When the Second World War began he was virtually ignored by the British Establishment. The Americans, however, had taken him to their hearts and he lectured all over the USA including at the famous Carnegie Hall. Thus he was appointed as the official cartoonist to the USAAF and wore their uniform.
This is the roller-coaster story of Bruce Bairnsfather and his character Old Bill- the ones 'who won the war' according to General Sir Ian Hamilton - how they began, how they became one, how Old Bill both sustained and destroyed his creator in his search for the Better 'Ole.
Bairnsfather had always said that Old Bill had just evolved but in this new edition the authors identify the real Old Bill and find his name on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, barely twelve kilometres from where Bairnsfather drew his his first cartoons.

Text: from the dust jacquet of the Bairnsfather biography 'In Search of the Better 'Ole by Tonie and Valmai Holt. (ISBN 08050527643 - 288 p, 2001 edition)

You can buy the book at:
Site of Tonie and Valmai Holt, BB biographers and BB collectors

Learn more:
related article: WW1 in cartoons
The BB commemoration site (more information about this in a next post)
The official BB site by Mark Warby
Site by BB collector Joe Bristow
Free BB e-book – lots of cartoons from Fragments from France (WW1)
Inspiration for making BB-based cartoons.
BB site by Michel Dewitte (Belgium)

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