The interview I gave to the History Makers students focused on a particular grave in Stokesay churchyard, but there is another memorial we passed which has its own enthralling story. You can see me standing next to it with one of the students above. This is the story.
A war memorial nicknamed ‘Old Bill’ occupied a position on Shropshire’s front line, the A49, in Craven Arms for 35 years. In 1956 Old Bill 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. Keith Pybus, our ‘landscape detective’, has worked with Mark Warby of the Bruce Bairnsfather Society to identify the story of the famous First World War cartoonist’s attachment to Shropshire. His love of ‘Clun country’ extended over fifty years and two world wars.
It began at least ten years before the First World War, when Bairnsfather’s aunt Ellen (sister of Bruce’s mother, Janie) and uncle purchased Aston Hall in Aston-on-Clun.
After his years in New York and the tours of North America, Shropshire was a true retreat for Bruce in the 1940s and 1950s. The Shropshire Hills Walking Forum has been working with 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 …” Glyn and Jan Hughes, the current owners of Cresswell House.
Clun Church by Bruce Bairnsfather © Estate of Barbara Bruce Littlejohn
Irene Williams recalled for The Clun Chronicle that Bairnsfather 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.
Once the Second World War was over, Bairnsfather couldn’t stay away. Before and after each visit to the USA 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.
Later, 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 for The Countryman in 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’. In the now re-christened 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.
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 29 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.’
Back in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, Stokesay, it does seem as if Old Bill has 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 that 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.
One hundred years after his cartoons first appeared, Bruce Bairnsfather still has an army of ardent fans – enthusiasts and collectors of his work. Mark Warby is bringing Old Bill to 21st-century audiences via the website www.brucebairnsfather.org.uk and social media pages www.Facebook.com/TheBruceBairnsfatherSociety and Twitter @BBairnsfather. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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