“Old Bill” – The Shropshire Connection
CRAVEN ARMS TAKES ‘OLD BILL’ TO ITS HEART
A War Memorial nicknamed ‘Old Bill’ occupied a position on Shropshire’s front line, the A49, for 35 years.
In 1956 he was forced to beat a retreat from the whizz bangs of the main road. His corner of the A49 and the Corvedale Road in Craven Arms was just too exposed. So, for the last sixty years he has stood to attention with his Lee-Enfield rifle by the hedge of Stokesay churchyard, clad in uniform, helmet, ammunition pouches, puttees.
Alas, the thousands who visit adjoining Stokesay Castle know nothing of this link in a chain between Bruce Bairnsfather and the countryside of the Shropshire Hills.
Bairnsfather’s attachment to Shropshire began at least ten years before the First World War when his aunt Ellen [sister of Bruce’s mother, Janie] and uncle purchased Aston Hall in Aston-on-Clun (SO390817).
Edward Artindale was a retired solicitor. The family was affluent, when he died in 1934; he was worth £3.3m in today’s money. When one of Bairnsfather’s cousins married into the local landed gentry in 1906, Bruce’s brother was a pageboy. One assumes Bruce was around but, lacking a formal role, did not merit a mention in the local paper. During the War it became an Auxiliary Hospital. The house, now a series of flats, is still there.
BACK IN SHROPSHIRE
After the years in New York and the tours of North America, both during and after the War, Shropshire was a true retreat for Bruce in the 1940s and 1950s. Mark Warby knows that he stayed at the Kangaroo Inn, Aston-on-Clun in 1940. Where do we find Bruce Bairnsfather after the outbreak of the Second World War? In Clun: back in one of the quietest places under the sun. The Shropshire Hills Walking Forum has been working with Mark and the current owners of Cresswell House to record not just the weeks Bruce spent here in 1941, but his long-term love of the place.
“Bairnsfather’s likely daily life is part of Clun’s modern history … It was very strange to see, for the first time the landscape painting described as “unidentified” – it was immediately obvious to us that it was of Clun. Such a wonderful surprise to know that another link has been established. We imagined Bairnsfather packing his painting equipment after a hearty Creswell Guest House breakfast and finding the ideal spot to paint … One wonders if he was confident enough on his return to share his work with fellow guests? It is to be hoped so.” Glyn & Jan Hughes The current owners of Cresswell House
I like to think of Bruce exploring the panoramas of the Shropshire Hills. Perhaps he turned left and headed for Offa’s Dyke? Happily, Llanfair Hill at 1400ft is the highest point of the Dyke and as a bonus here the ditches and ramparts are at their best. Walking by the waterside appeals to everyone; but rights-of-way rarely oblige by shadowing a watercourse, they will take you to the mill or to the ford, but our forerunners rarely had cause for a stroll along the River Clun. I hope Bruce found that nice stretch from Purslow to Aston-on-Clun.
When he had pulled off his boots and took out the sketch pad, we know he would turn right heading for 23 High Street. The current owner, David Britten, has created an ironmonger’s shop from the 1940s. The shop Bairnsfather would have known, however, had been “a shoe business.” Irene Williams recalled for The Clun Chronicle that he rented a room as a studio from her grandmother, Fanny. An old stone building in the garden had been a laundry room, a boot and shoe workshop and a dormitory. With its view “over the garden to the river and the meadow beyond” this became his studio. It provided “a haven for Bruce Bairnsfather in which to work undisturbed.” No 23 no longer has a garden, David Britten, explained to me that the ‘old stone building’ is the rump of the Clun workhouse, which today is a private house belonging to Mr Evans.
Clun may have felt it was safe from the battlefields, but it couldn’t camouflage Bairnsfather. He was spotted by the US Forces for their magazine Stars and Stripes and spent the years from 1942 visiting Army and Air Force bases in England and Northern Ireland.
Once the War was over, he couldn’t stay away. His final lecture tours in the States were in 1946-7, 1948-9 and 1949-50. Before and after each visit he would drive up from his home in Sussex and spend two or three weeks around Clun, Stokesay and Craven Arms, enjoying the countryside and painting landscapes.
One of these, a painting submitted to the Royal Academy in 1945, had always been known as “Shropshire Viaduct.” With the help of the Shropshire Hills Walking Forum the exact location has been identified. Where the drive to Downton Castle passes over a gorge SO 447 751. Sadly, their detective work has also revealed the viaduct is just over the border in Herefordshire.
Throughout the 1950s from Colwall near Malvern and finally Littleworth, Worcester, Bruce was never more than 50 miles from the Shropshire Hills and the chance to paint.
“CLUN COUNTRY” AS HE CALLED IT
Mark Warby wrote in his piece Man who made the Empire laugh for The Countryman November 2013, “The landscape of Shropshire appealed to Bairnsfather greatly. He was particularly fond of Clun, and from 1940 onwards visited regularly seeking solitude, in which to paint. He enjoyed the peace and solitude of remote locations like Stokesay and Wistanstow – and the respect the locals had for his anonymity.”
Nevertheless, Old Bill kept dogging his footsteps; even treading on his heels. In 1946 for friends who kept the Stokesay Castle Hotel, he created a local version of a better ‘ole. Now re-christened the Stokesay Inn SO 434 825 it is on the left-hand side of the bar. The caption reads ‘If yer knows of a better ‘ole. ‘Ere it is.’
And the next year the Royal British Legion Club in Ludlow had him embellish the staircase landing with a large mural. At the time of writing the building is on the market.
I had better record for posterity that this mural in Ludlow has muddied the waters of the Bairnsfather trench. No doubt with the passage of shoulders down the years, his signature was becoming erased. An attempt at ‘restoration’ was undertaken. Perhaps Br… was still legible. Picking up the brush, the would-be preserver of our history, wrote, no doubt with a flourish, “Brian.” This may be the only case of an ‘unknown’ being forged in place of a famous signature.
Mark Warby continues the tale “Despite being unwell, he continued to indulge his passion for landscape painting, still making excursions to his beloved Clun country and around the Wye …
When he died on 29th September 1959, aged seventy-two, his studio was crammed with his paintings of these and other places which had given him so much pleasure. Once known as the most famous cartoonist in the world, he was a true countryman at heart.”
FAREWELL FROM OUR OWN ‘OLD BILL’
Back in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Stokesay; it does seem as if Old Bill as at last found ‘a better ‘ole.’ A standing soldier is the ‘signature work’ of Leominster sculptor, William George Storr-Barber (1876 – 1934).
Comparing the memorial and the cartoon, you can see what people recalled was the moustache. No matter that the original Old Bill has a straggly walrus one, whereas that on the memorial stands, like its owner, smartly to attention. Bairnsfather’s Old Bill is scruffy, whilst the Hollington red sandstone figure is smart-as-paint in helmet, ammunition pouches and puttees; Lee Enfield down by his side.
And yet, and yet, … that nickname could hardly be more fitting. Bruce Bairnsfather had the strongest ties with south Shropshire extending over 50 years. In pursuit of our War Walks on the Home Front project we have benefitted from the generosity of many allies, none more so than Mark Warby, without whose research and guidance this piece could not have been written.
One hundred years after his cartoons first appeared, Bruce Bairnsfather still has an army of ardent fans – enthusiasts and collectors of his work. There is a Bruce Bairnsfather Society, and Mark Warby is bringing Old Bill to 21st century audiences via the dedicated official website www.brucebairnsfather.org.uk and social media pages www.Facebook.com/TheBruceBairnsfatherSociety and Twitter @BBairnsfather. For more information contact [email protected]