Though Bert Thomas has become best known for his war cartoons – gaining a national reputation with one entitled ’Arf a mo’ Kaiser – he was wide ranging in his subjects and technically versatile.
The son of a monumental sculptor, Bert Thomas was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, on 13 October 1883. He was educated in Swansea and, at the age of 14, began to serve an apprenticeship to a commercial metal-engraver. At the same time, he sold music-hall cartoons to the Swansea Daily Leader, Daily Post, News and Echo. On the recommendation of the popular music-hall comedian, Albert Chevalier, he joined a London advertising agency in 1902. Greatly influenced by Phil May, he depicted urban society in lively broken line.
Working rapidly, he used his mirror image as a model and referred to photographs to confirm particular details. He was technically versatile and made use of pen, pencil, chalk, charcoal and, increasingly, brush. Becoming a member of the London Sketch Club, he made a close friend of his Pinner neighbour, William Heath Robinson, who later compared Thomas to Charles Keene. After working in a freelance position for Pick-me-Up and Ally Sloper’s Half- Holiday, he began a long association with Punch (1905-48) and London Opinion (1909-54) – contributing political and social cartoons and latterly the popular series of a ‘Child’s Guide’ to celebrities.
Thomas gained a national reputation with his ’Arf a mo’, Kaiser (1914), a cartoon drawn for the Weekly Dispatch to advertise a tobacco fund for soldiers. It depicted a grinning Cockney soldier lighting his pipe before engaging the enemy. During the First World War, Thomas himself served as a private in the Artists’ Rifles (1916-18). He was also official artist for the War Bonds campaign, producing for it Britain’s largest poster, depicting Drake facing the Spanish Armada, which covered the face of the National Gallery (1918). His contributions to the war effort earned him an MBE (1918). After the war, he published several volumes of cartoons and also took to book illustration. He drew for the Radio Times during the 1920s. In the Second World War, he again produced memorable posters, including the series ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ for the Railway Executive Committee (1942). He died on 6 September 1966.
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A; and the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent (Canterbury).