A collection of prints and plates featuring the work of First World War cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, known for his morale-boosting work and the legendary character ‘Old Bill’, go under the hammer in Newcastle this week.
The prints form part of the Anderson & Garland Picture Sale on Tuesday (April 19) and Wednesday’s Town and County auction, where they are expected to attract keen bidding from collectors of militaria and connoisseurs of Bairnsfather’s work.
Bairnsfather served in the First World War with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and was injured in the Second Battle of Ypres. Back in Britain and suffering from shellshock, he developed his humorous cartoons about life in the trenches and created ‘Old Bill’, an old soldier with a trademark walrus moustache. It’s believed the police became known as ‘the Old Bill’ because of the character.
Bairnsfather’s work appeared in The Bystander Magazine during the war and two of the prints in the Anderson & Garland sale – ‘Where did that one go to?’ and ‘I’m sure they’ll ‘ear this damn thing squeaking’ – are from the publication.
The collection is being auctioned on behalf of a Newcastle woman whose late husband was a Bairnsfather fan.
The vendor, who does not want to be identified, said: “Some of them are 100 years old. My husband went up and down the country collecting them, mainly from antique fairs.”
The plates in the collection were mainly made by women in Staffordshire during the First World War, many of whom had loved ones serving at the front.
Anderson & Garland auctioneer and military expert, Fred Wyrley-Birch, said: “They are important because they show a fantastic insight into the mindset of Britain during the war period and just after.
“This was a way of looking at comedy that hadn’t been done before, featuring ordinary people. This was part of the war effort that made sure everyone knew what was happening, but in a light hearted way.
“The Old Bill character with his big moustache and ruddy face went on after the war and he was one of the most popular things to come out of it. Policemen grew moustaches to be just like him and were therefore known as The Old Bill.
“It’s also a very important part of our social and political history because the women who made the plates were replacing men who had gone off to the front. It was the first time women had chance to go out to work and was a huge step forward for Britain and women’s rights, which eventually led to women getting the vote.”
The Bairnsfather collection features 19 plates and eight prints, which have been split into affordable lots for bidders. The plates, which are decorative and have not been used, have an estimated value of £20-£50 each.