The Collected Drawings of Bruce Bairnsfather
In 1930 Bruce Bairnsfather had signed up with The Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments in New York, to undertake a season on the coast-to-coast lecture circuit.
Following a highly successful tour season in 1930-31, and “in response to a demand from those organisations who have engaged him” Bairnsfather’s agent decided to capitalise on the popularity of his latest new speaker by publishing a special volume of cartoons encompassing both his current output in various American magazines, and a selection of the Fragments from France drawings which had first brought him to the public’s attention, back in 1915.
The Leigh Bureau decided to produce two versions of their new book—a ‘regular’ or ‘standard’ copy, and a deluxe edition which would appeal to the more serious collector.
The standard edition of The Collected Drawings was itself “very special” - finely printed on Warren’s Luster Coated Paper, cloth bound in blue with the title gold-stamped, and presented in a smart, colour dust jacket featuring BB’s most famous cartoon. Priced at $3.00 it is certain to have been very popular with Bairnsfather’s many fans in 1931.
The deluxe edition, priced at $10.00 was probably aimed at the slightly more up-market and affluent Bairnsfather enthusiasts of the day. In a letter written in 1932, W. Colston Leigh commented that “as a ‘Collectors item’ it is unsurpassed.” Half leather bound with black leather spine and red/orange boards, and printed on an even more superior weight & quality paper than the ‘standard’ edition, the $10.00 version was limited to only 970 copies, each containing “an original, signed drawing by the artist.”
Both editions of The Collected Drawings of Bruce Bairnsfather—”Privately Printed by W. Colston Leigh, Inc, 521 Fifth Avenue, New York—Lecture Managers and Publishers for world famous celebrities” were published in October 1931, around the same time Old Bill’s creator was embarking on a second lecture season with the Leigh Bureau.
Neither edition of The Collected Drawings of Bruce Bairnsfather could be purchased through regular bookstores, both only being available direct from the Leigh Bureau. However as part of their agreement with the publishers of Judge magazine for allowing a large number of BB’s cartoons from that periodical to be reproduced in the book, the lecture bureau must have agreed to the sale of a certain number of copies to the magazine, for them to sell to their readers. Throughout October and November 1931, Judge published regular half-page advertisements offering autographed copies of The Collected Drawings at $3.00 each—the same price that the Leigh Bureau was selling it for, unsigned!
There is no record of how many autographed copies of The Collected Drawings were sold to Judge readers, but they turn up from time to time and are quite easy to distinguish as they just have Bairnsfather’s signature on a blank fly leaf. Now and then an example will come to light which is signed and has a lightning original sketch of Old Bill. These almost certainly started off as the unsigned $3.00 edition sold through the Leigh Bureau, and had both the autograph and sketch added by BB at the request of the books owner, at a later date.
The standard edition of The Collected Drawings contains a total of seventy-six published cartoons—eleven Fragments from France from The Bystander, sixty drawings from BB’s series following Old Bill and Bert on their travels around America from Judge, and four non-Old Bill cartoons from The New Yorker, Life and College Humor.
By way of an Introduction the book has a Summons and Complaint made against Bruce Bairnsfather by William Busby (“otherwise known as Old Bill”) in which “the plaintiff alleges that for a number of years, the defendant has, with extreme vulgarity and malice, made
use of the features and peculiarities of the plaintiff’s dial, pan, or face, in order to provoke mirth and ridicule throughout the world.” In response, BB “decided to put all the evidence at my disposal before the public and await its just opinion. In the following pages will be found an extensive array of drawings depicting the life and adventures of Old Bill and his devoted side-kick, Bert….these...will give the reader ample scope in which to form his opinion as to the merits of the case now filed against me.” On the opposite page were several “malicious caricatures” which “Old Bill submits...as evidence to support his case.”
Following this is “The Evolution of Old Bill” - written by BB and accompanied by four illustrations depicting Bill in various stages from infancy to the character we all know and recognise.
Although Bruce Bairnsfather is forever linked with Old Bill, we must not forget that during his long career he did from time to time produce cartoons in which his famous character did not appear. His cartoons drawn for The New Yorker, Life and College Humor which appear in The Collected Drawings, are an interesting contrast to the more familiar Fragments from France and Judge illustrations in the book.
Limited Edition copies of The Collected Drawings of Bruce Bairnsfather are distinguishable by their half-leather binding and red/orange cover, as opposed to the blue boards of the standard edition. The superior edition is rarely found today in it’s original dust jacket—a dark charcoal/black with the title of the book in gold lettering, and featuring a small drawing of Old Bill in civvies, also in gold.
None of the 970 copies of the Limited Edition is numbered. In each book though, Bruce Bairnsfather has drawn a superb sketch of Old Bill, finished off with his familiar bold, flowing signature. The drawings have all been executed on the blank page opposite the title page, and are protected by a clear tissue sheet. Despite his ability to dash off a sketch of Old Bill at a lightning speed, it must have taken BB some considerable time to complete such a large number of these special drawings.
Although at first glance the content of the Limited Edition (other than having the original sketch) appears to be identical to the standard edition, closer examination reveals that it in fact contains eight additional cartoons (one of which is illustrated, top left). These are all from his weekly series about Old Bill and Bert in Judge magazine, and appear after the drawing “Hey, who’s drivin’, me or you?”
At $10.00 the Limited Edition of The Collected Drawings would have been quite an expensive addition to one’s library, in 1931. Despite not being sold through bookstores both editions would almost certainly have sold well, as Bairnsfather was immensely popular on the lecture circuit and his talks were seen by hundreds of people in each place he visited, all potential buyers of this latest ‘souvenir’ celebrating the work of their favourite cartoonist.
With such a high number of ‘limited’ copies of The Collected Drawings of Bruce Bairnsfather being produced (certainly in comparison to the Limited Edition of 100 copies of Bullets & Billets published in 1917 by Grant Richards), it would seem reasonable to imagine there would be quite a few around for today’s collectors to snap up. Unfortunately though, the Limited Edition of the book is particularly scarce, and even the more common standard edition is highly sought after by collectors. Interestingly, signed copies of the latter (either examples of the autographed edition sold through Judge magazine, or copies signed at a later date by BB) come up for sale almost as regularly as un-signed copies!