Saturday, 9 July 2005

Wartime memories cast in bronze - moving and amusing

Bruce Bairnsfather's Old Bill
Español | Deutsche | Français | Italiano | Português

by Christopher Proudlove©

Sunday, July 10 has been designated as the day for celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and as the country prepares to mark the occasion, it occurred to me how attention will be focussed on war memorials across the land.

One of the most dramatic is that at Hoylake, Wirral, about which historian and author Norman Ellison writes: "From the northern end of Grange Hill rises the tapering obelisk of the war memorial - a noble monument to the dead of two world wars.

"The bronze figures by Charles Jagger are typical of that famous sculptor's rugged style. Around the high base are inscribed Kipling's stirring words: 'Who stands if freedom fall? Who dies if England live?'"

The memorial consists of a granite obelisk against which stand life-size bronzes of a female figure representing Humanity and a figure of a soldier holding his gun horizontally in front of him.

When Jagger exhibited a model of the latter at the Royal Academy, it was entitled Soldier on Defence.

With the production of a later bronze edition, the title Wipers -military slang for the Belgium town of Ypres - was added.

The memorial was a turning point in Jagger's career. Following its completion in 1922, the sculptor was never short of work.

The combination of stark melancholy bronze figures set against strong architectural forms became the central concern of his greatest monument, the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

It's worth a trip to the capital just to see the work, in all its moving grandeur, it is a true tour de force.

By his own admission, Jagger sought to show "the Tommy as I knew him in the trenches".

The compelling realism of his figures has always been highly emotive and is at the same time realist and heroic.

Inspiration for the Tommy in Wipers may have been come from a French war poster, On ne passe pas, published in 1918 by Maurice Neumont, but Jagger's figure is less aggressive and at the same time more noble and powerful.

The same bronze Tommy featured in 18-inch reductions like the example illustrated here. When a copy occasionally comes on to the auction market, demand is assured.

They were much admired when they were cast and the then Prince of Wales commissioned a copy for his own collection. This led in 1922 to a further commission for a portrait statuette of The Prince of Wales himself.

Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1943) was born in Kilnhurst, Yorkshire, the brother of artists David and Edith Jagger.

He studied at the Sheffield School of Art and the Royal College of Art from 1908 to 1911, after which he travelled to Venice and Rome.

He won a prize in Rome for his sculpture, but returned home in 1914 to enlist in the army.

He knew the horrors of the trenches from first hand experience. He joined the Artists' Rifles and in 1915 was commissioned in the Worcestershire Regiment.

He and served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and was wounded three times, receiving the Military Cross for gallantry.

While convalescing, he began work on a bronze relief titled No Man's Land, now in the Tate, in which he gave full rein to his abhorrence of war.

Corpses lie stranded on barbed wire, while a solitary look-out hides behind them from the sniper's bullet.

Flurry of letters to The Times

Jagger's realism was too much for some. When the Royal Artillery monument was unveiled in 1925, the inclusion of the bronze of a dead Tommy provoked outcry and a flurry of letters in The Times.

In light-hearted contrast, Old Bill would be positively delighted that after 60 years, he has found the "better 'ole" he sought during the First World War ... in the hearts of collectors around the world.

The cartoon creation of soldier-artist Bruce Bairnsfather, Old Bill has left the mud of Flanders far behind and he's going places in the saleroom. Pottery plates featuring the character average about ££30-40 apiece, while a teapot on stand can fetch at much as £150-250.

The 4½-inch bronze car mascot illustrated here dates from the 1920s and is worth £200-300.

Bairnsfather was a commercial artist by training, but the young infantry officer became Britain's secret weapon, keeping his comrades' spirits high by drawing cartoons in charcoal on the backs of maps and on the walls of ruined farmhouses.

Word reached the War Office and Bairnsfather was signed up as an official war artist that took him to all the important battle fronts.

What made him a household name was a weekly series of his cartoons published by the magazine Bystander.

Crusty Old Bill was his most celebrated character. He was a seasoned veteran Tommy with a walrus moustache and a sarcastic wit.

Perhaps the best known cartoon depicts Bill and a comrade sheltering in a shell crater in mid-battle.

As the bullets whistle above their heads Bill says: "Well, if you know a better 'ole, go to it!" It was reproduced on a countless number of Old Bill products that kept people smiling for two world wars.

Giving extra bite to the propaganda exercise was an inscription found on the underside of some Bairnsfather ceramic ware which reads: "Made by the girls of Staffordshire during the winter of 1917 when the boys were in the trenches fighting for liberty and civilisation."

Main manufacturer of Old Bill pottery was Grimwades of Stoke-on-Trent and pieces are often, although not always, marked Winton or Atlas China.

An upmarket Old Bill ceramics manufacturer was the Royal Staffordshire Pottery of Wilkinson Ltd., while Carlton China, owned by Wiltshaw and Robinson, also of Stoke, produced porcelain figures of the character in a style similar to that of W.H. Goss.

One of these depicts a 5½inch version of Old Bill standing guard with the base captioned: "Yours to a cinder, Old Bill." In typical Carlton (and Goss) style, it also carries the arms of a city, in this case London.

Another inspired by Bairnsfather is a model of a dugout with a Tommy peeping out. The inscription reads: "Well-built dugout containing one reception-kitchen-bedroom and up-to-date funk hole ... This desirable residence stands one foot above water level, commanding an excellent view of the enemy trenches. Excellent shooting (snipe and duck) ... "

The model was also copied by Savoy and Birks, Rawlins and Company Ltd., of Stoke.

Another Bairnsfather favourite was an anonymous British Tommy who makes frequent appearances.

One cartoon shows him opening yet another tin of plum and apple jam and grumbling: "When the 'ell is it going to be strawberry?"

My favourite was a book of cartoons produced on the outbreak of war in 1939. One shows an aged Old Bill back on his home ground again in Flanders.

Says Old Bill to formidable French farm wife at her doorstep: "It's 20 years since I was 'ere, Missus. Sorry I got to dig a trench through yer yard again!"

Or Old Bill explaining to a young Tommy standing alongside: "Yus, son. We was 18 months just where you're standin! Then comes the Big Push, and we got to 'ere."

Pictures show, above, left: Wipers - the haltingly powerful bronze by Charles Sargeant Jagger, a larger version of which can be seen on Jagger's Hoylake and West Kirby war memorial. The smaller version stands 18 inches in height and has an auction value of £20,000-30,000

Right: Bruce Bairnsfather's crusty Old Bill. This 1920s bronze car mascot is worth £200-300 at auction

Below: Jagger's Hoylake and West Kirby war memorial

Jagger war memorial

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous martha chavz said...

I just found a very cute brown plate with the cartoon that reads "Dear-"At present we are staying at a farm"".What is it worth?

12 September 2011 at 11:51  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home