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Famous war cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather's former Stratford house is up for sale



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If you’ve got a spare million, you could snap up a very special historic house. The seven-bedroom Victoria Spa Lodge in Bishopton is currently on sale for a guide price of £1.1m. It is part of a house that was once home to Bruce Bairnsfather, the famous First World War cartoonist. Here Mark Warby, an authority on Bairnsfather, recalls the cartoonist’s life.

BORN at Murree in India on 9th July 1887, Bruce Bairnsfather was brought home to England in 1895 and educated at the United Services College, Westward Ho!

In 1904 the family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, renting the Spa House (now Victoria Spa Lodge) at Bishopton. Bruce attended the Army School (Trinity College) in Church Street and qualified for the army in 1906.

He joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment Militia as a second lieutenant in March 1907 but resigned his commission in 1908 to pursue a career as an artist.

1916 (47304654)
1916 (47304654)

After studying at John Hassall’s New Art School in London, Bairnsfather achieved moderate success with commercial designs for leading brands including Players Tobacco, Liptons Tea and Beechams Pills. To supplement his income he took a job with Spensers Limited, a firm of electrical engineers specialising in petrol gas lighting, based in Stratford.

Over the next six years he progressed through the company, travelling all over the country as a salesman and later inspector of works. He worked on fitting out the original Memorial Theatre with electric light, and operated the lighting switchboard during one of the annual Shakespeare festivals.

He also gained a reputation as an amateur comedian in and around Stratford, particularly for his female impersonations. He was in great demand at charity concerts with his comic songs, and also appeared in several local pantomimes, including a production of Robinson Crusoe staged at Compton Verney in collaboration with Lord Willoughby de Broke’s family.

Bruce in front of Spa House (47304656)
Bruce in front of Spa House (47304656)
Victoria Spa House for sale (47304662)
Victoria Spa House for sale (47304662)

Several of Bairnsfather’s other theatricals were staged in the grounds of Lighthorne rectory, aided by members of the Verney family. Stratford’s famous resident, the author Marie Corelli, was so impressed with his ability as a performer that she suggested he turn professional and even arranged an interview for him with theatre owner Sir Edward Moss in London.

The Bairnsfather family were well-known and respected locally. Bruce’s father, Major Thomas Henry Bairnsfather, became a justice of the peace in 1912, and from 1915 to 1918 served as district recruiting officer for Stratford.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Bruce rejoined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and went out to France with the 1st Battalion in November 1914 as a machine-gun officer.

He took part in the 1914 Christmas truce at St Yvon, near Plugstreet Wood, and it was also here that he first started to make comic sketches of life at the front, which later became Fragments from France. Bruce's story in part inspired the RSC's 2014 production The Christmas Truce.

Convalescing back home after being wounded in the second Battle of Ypres on 25th April 1915, Bairnsfather was approached by The Bystander for more drawings. His cartoons soon began appearing regularly in the magazine and were incredibly popular: almost overnight he became a household name.

Bully (47304658)
Bully (47304658)
His Pals (47304660)
His Pals (47304660)

Eight collections of his Fragments from France cartoons were published, selling over a million copies. The Bystander also produced a whole range of Bairnsfather merchandise including postcards, jigsaws, colour prints, playing cards, handkerchiefs and calendars. There was even a range of Bairnsfather-ware pottery produced by Grimwades of Stoke-on-Trent.

Bairnsfather created Old Bill, a walrus-moustached old soldier who appeared in many of his cartoons. His most famous drawing showed two Tommies in a shell-hole with shells and bullets exploding all around them, one saying to the other, "Well if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.” Published in The Bystander on 24th November 1915, this became one of the most famous cartoons of the 20th century.

From 1916, Bairnsfather was attached to the War Office as an "officer cartoonist" and in this capacity toured the French, Italian and American fronts at the request of the Allied armies.

By the end of the First World War, Bruce Bairnsfather had become an international celebrity. He went on to enjoy a 45-year career as a cartoonist, author, lecturer and star of stage and television – almost always accompanied by Old Bill. He died in Worcester on 29th September 1959, aged 72.

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