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. Bert Thomas was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, on 13 October 1883, the youngest of the seven surviving children of the monumental sculptor, Job Thomas, and his wife, Mary (née Comley). One of his elder brothers, Ivor, became a sculptor.
Soon after his birth, Thomas moved to Swansea with his family. Following the death of both his parents when he was eight-years-old, he was brought up by other relatives and, at the age of 14, he began to serve an apprenticeship to a commercial metal-engraver. At the same time, he began to sell cartoons of music-halls and other subjects to the Swansea Daily Leader, Daily Post, News and Echo. In 1900, the popular music-hall performer, Albert Chevalier, commissioned him to design a poster, and he also contributed some drawings to The Strand Magazine.
As a result of this apparent success, he moved to London, where he met and was encouraged by Tom Browne. However, having failed to make a breakthrough after a year, he returned to Wales.
In 1903, Thomas joined a London advertising agency, on the recommendation of Albert Chevalier. 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 later the popular series that provided a ‘Child’s Guide’ to celebrities.
In 1909, Thomas married Elizabeth Florette Bowen, and they would have four sons and two daughters. One son, Peter, would become a cartoonist for Punch. By 1929, he and his family had moved out to Church Farm, Pinner.
Greatly influenced by Phil May, Thomas 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. He was also a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, the Pastel Society and the Savage Club.
In 1914, Thomas gained a national reputation with his cartoon, ’Arf a mo’, Kaiser, which was 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 in 1918. His contributions to the war effort earned him an MBE (1918).
After the First World War, Thomas continued to contribute cartoons to many periodicals, including the Evening News, The Sketch and later the Radio Times, as well as Punch and London Opinion – and his cartoons began to be collected in volumes. He also produced advertisements, designed postcards and turned to book illustration. From 1919, he was a member of the advisory staff of the Press Art School.
During the Second World War, Thomas again produced memorable posters, including the series ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ for the Railway Executive Committee (1942). By that date, he had moved from Pinner to Chelsea.
In the year following the death of his first wife in 1949, Thomas married Florence Currie, the widow of his accountant, and they settled in Bayswater. He died at his home, at 33 Inverness Terrace, Bayswater, 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).
Mark Bryant, ‘Thomas Herbert Samuel [Bert] (1883-1966)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/66126