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Print Collection 12: Bairnsfather and Raemaekers

Bruce Bairnsfather | Louis Raemaekers

Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1959)

English illustrator Bruce Bairnsfather enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the war. While serving as a machine gun operator in France, Bairnsfather began to draw his soon-to-be-famous cartoons of daily life on the frontlines. These were first published by the London weekly magazine The Bystander in January, 1915. Many of Bairnsfather's cartoons featured the recurring character of Old Bill — a mustached soldier often smoking a pipe — who enjoyed increasing popularity with the B.E.F. but was censured by the government as a "vulgar caricature" of Britain's heroic soldiers. Fragments from France (S-092), the first collection of Bairnsfather cartoons, was published in 1916 by The Bystander and became an instant sensation among British soldiers. Despite censure, Bairnsfather was transferred to the War Office in 1916, where he drew similar cartoons for the Allies in an effort to improve morale. During World War II, Bairnsfather was appointed official cartoonist to the American forces in Europe.

The Collection includes an original, autographed Bairnsfather sketch entitled Plugstreet (M-019) and addressed to Lieutenant R. Norris Williams. This ink and wash cartoon depicts two British soldiers sitting against a partially destroyed wall while missiles explode overhead. The man reading a newspaper addresses the other — "T'aint often I get's a chance o'readin' a paper Bert, so stop makin a noise with that tin, will yer?" Like "Wipers" (Ypres) of the Wipers Times, "Plugstreet" was a corruption of the name of a Belgian town, in this case — Ploegstreet.

Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956)

Also from the Williams Collection, Barbed Wire (L-001) and Hindenburg (L-002) are two original cartoons in black paint and charcoal on heavy board. "Save for the spiked helmets, the gruesome figures in the foreground of [Barbed Wire] might have belonged in life to any of the warring nationalities. It is a noteworthy fact, however, that none of the nations at war has shown so little care for its dead as Germany, whose corpses lie and rot on every front on which they are engaged," writes E. Charles Vivian in a wartime commentary on the work. This anti-German sentiment characteristically pervades Raemaekers's work — a fact that led to his trial for jeopardizing the neutrality of the Netherlands. Where Barbed Wire shows a morbid tableau of dead soldiers, Hindenburg is a more humorous cartoon of General Hindenburg and Kaiser Wilhelm peering from a U-boat in New York Harbor. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty's pedestal reads, "10 million men between 21 and 30." A worried Hindenburg addresses the Kaiser, "I think, All-Highest, we had better not insist on the annexation of America!" La Baïonnette (XS-068), also part of the Collection, is a 1916 printed collection of Raemaekers cartoons.

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