by Gordon Howsden
A number of skilled artists, some famous, some forgotten, were active from the Edwardian period through to the Second World War designing cigarette cards. The major printing firms who specialized in producing the cards usually had their own in-house artists who could turn their hands to almost any subject. Leading among these was Mardon, Son & Hall of Bristol, part of the Imperial Tobacco empire, who fielded a team of artists whose versatility was astonishing. Flowers to Footballers, racehorses to railway engines—regardless of subject they could produce artwork of the highest quality.
When commissions were placed with outside artists these were often specialists in their field, for example Arthur Wardle for dogs, Frank Mason for ships and Roland Green for birds. In addition, some lesser known but very proficient commercial artists were utilized and because their bread and butter work was usually preparing artwork for advertisements or story illustrations their biographical details often remain unrecorded.
A good example is Herbert Harris, who signed his work “H H Harris”, whose career extended from roughly 1910 to 1946 but whose personal details are unknown. His earliest work was for the S H Benson advertising agency for whom he developed the ‘Pyjama Man’ who was regularly utilized in Bovril adverts. The first of these was published in 1920 and showed a smiling shipwrecked man, still wearing his green-striped pyjamas, sitting astride a giant floating jar of Bovril with the slogan, “Bovril prevents that sinking feeling”. This ad was held over from the 1912 period as it was considered insensitive to have published it at the time in view of the sinking of the Titanic.
During the 1920s Harris’s work can be found in Passing Show magazine and Printer’s Pie, and in the 1930s he developed a multi-framed cartoon series for Bystander. His sketches also appeared on calendars and bridge scoring pads. The earliest book I have traced that contains his illustrations is The Errant Golfer by E P Leigh Bennett, published in 1929. This may have been significant for Harris as possibly it came to the attention of Mardon, Son & Hall. In any event, they commissioned him that same year to prepare the artwork for a series of 25 cards to be issued by W D & H O Wills in their boxes of cigarettes. It was titled Famous Golfers and depicted some of the leading exponents of the game in colourful and slightly humorous poses.
In a departure from normal practice Harris’s signature appeared on the face of the cards and also on the reverse side underneath the title. Selected original paintings were framed up by Wills for their picture gallery which from time to time was loaned out for exhibition purposes. The texts on the reverse of the cards were prepared by Golf Monthly magazine and how well Harris interpreted these interesting descriptions. George Gadd’s putting style with “elbows well out” and Alexander (“Sandy”) Herd’s “endless number of waggles” are superbly depicted.
The success of Famous Golfers persuaded Wills to use Harris for another series and this was titled Lawn Tennis, 1931. Again Harris’s skill at depicting various players’ idiosyncrasies is immediately apparent. The “Bounding Basque”, Jean Borotra, leaps towards the net and the determined features of Lilli D’Alvarez, whose methods were described in the text as: “there are no half measures; the Senorita is always out to win”, are perfectly illustrated. Again Harris’ signature appears on the front of the cards but this time his name was omitted from the reverse.
The Bovril ads continued through the 1930s and the last reference to the “Pyjama Man” that I have is an advert in a 1939 circus programme. It is possible, however, that they continued to be used beyond this date. Some children’s books were illustrated by Harris and published under wartime restrictions. The titles I have identified are: Nursery Rhymes, Jolly Junior's Fairy Tales, Junior's Jolly ABC and What Fun. These probably date from 1945/6. From the examples I have seen, the artwork is first class and Harris’s depiction of animals in humorous situations is first class.
(* I've been unable to confirm dates for Harris; the only reference I have found gives fl. 1918-40. I do know that he was represented by the agents Francis & Mills from at least 1921 to at least 1951 and he seems to disappear from the phone book that year, which makes me wonder if he was the Herbert H. Harris whose death, aged 61, was registered at Bromsgrove in 1Q 1952. Unfortunately, there are a number of possible candidates born around 1891 and far too many Herbert Harris's listed in the census records for me to make even an educated guess at which is "our" Herbert H. Harris.)