Home War Artists Bruce Bairnsfather

Bruce Bairnsfather

The Bystander, 1917

‘Things that Matter’ by Bruce Bairnsfather, 1917

Charles Bruce Bairnsfather was born in Muree, India, the son of an Army officer, and educated at the United Services College in Westward Ho. He showed an aptitude for caricature at school, but little interest in studying. He served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment but left to train at John Hassall’s New Art School.

Despite impressing his tutor, Charles Van Havermat, he found it difficult to secure regular commissioned work and took a job with a firm of lighting engineers. When war broke out, Bairnsfather rejoined his old regiment, serving as a machine-gun officer, rising from second lieutenant to captain. While in the trenches, Bairnsfather resumed his talent for drawing, much to the amusement of his fellow officers.

Encouraged to send his pictures to the papers, he chose The Bystander magazine, which published his first cartoon on 31 March 1915. The magazine subsequently hired him to produce a picture for each issue. He created a cast of typical British Tommies, with the character “Old Bill” in the starring role.

The cartoons were an instant hit with both the men at the front and readers at home. Their popularity led to Old Bill and his friends being featured on a range of merchandise as well as inspiring a stage play in 1917 followed by a screen version.

Bairnsfather’s morale-boosting role was recognised when he was created “Officer Cartoonist” in the Intelligence Department by the War Office; he also spent time with the French, American and Italian armies. During the Second World War, he was Official War Artist to the US Army. His illustrations continued to be published in The Bystander until it merged with The Tatler in 1940.