Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rene Bull

The Imaginative Art of René Bull
by Gordon Howsden

Perhaps René Bull's background had something to do with the fact that, in an age that spawned a host of innovative illustrators, he shone both as a cartoonist and as a gifted illustrator. Born in Dublin on 11 December 1872, his father was English and his mother French. The diverse cultures which he inherited and experienced as a youngster must have contributed to his quickwittedness, flair and spirit of adventure.

René seemed destined for a career in engineering and was sent to Paris to further his studies. A relative was on the staff of the team working on the building of the Suez Canal and René had the opportunity to be involved but, fortunately, he had made the acquaintance of the brilliant French cartoonist and draughtsman, Caran D'Ache, and opted to become an artist instead.

Returning to Ireland, Bull had some cartoons published in local journals before heading for London where he was employed drawing strip cartoons for the recently launched magazine, Pick-Me-Up. Other magazines were soon benefitting from his work but the opportunity presented itself in 1896 to join the staff of Black and White as a 'special reporter' travelling to, and reporting back from, the world's trouble spots. René eagerly accepted this challenging task.

Over the next few years René Bull, with his camera and sketch book always to hand, covered the Armenian Massacres, the Greco-Turkish War, skirmishes on the North-West Frontier, the Sudan Campaigns and the Boer War. He was present when Kitchener captured Khartoum to avenge the death of General Gordon and was on the last train that quietly steamed out of Ladysmith through the Boer lines before the siege began.

Frequently under fire and suffering the hardships of life in the front line, Bull's reports were avidly read by an eager public at home. One of his graphic sketches for Black and White was used by Pat Hodgson for the dust wrapper of his book The War Illustrators (Osprey Publishing, 1977). Bull's reports and photographs from Africa were published by Black and White in 1899 and, proving to be an excellent raconteur, he also conducted a series of popular lectures on his return to the UK.

Prior to heading to Africa to cover the Boer War, René Bull had, together with his good friends Cecil Aldin, Dudley Hardy, John Hassall and Lance Thackeray, become a founder member of the London Sketch Club. In his excellent book that traces the history of the Club, David Cuppleditch shows a rare photograph of René Bull in a group scene together with some of his colleagues. Also illustrated is an invitation card designed by Bull in 1903 for one of the Club's regular "smoking" evenings. Both illustrations had previously appeared in David's equally enthralling book, The John Hassall Lifestyle.

After reporting on the Boer War, René Bull concentrated on pursuing his career along more conventional lines and added book illustration and postcard design to his existing contributions to the magazines and periodicals of the day. Another London Sketch Club colleague, Tom Browne, may well have introduced René Bull to Davidson Bros, the postcard publishers, as Bull joined Browne among their roster of comic artists. The series he produced for them included 'Bridge Expressions', ‘Banking Expressions’, ‘Illustrated Limericks’ and a set of humorous cricket scenes. Other designs were published by Faulkner, Landeker & Brown and Charles Voisey.

It is, however, book illustration for which René Bull is best remembered today. His first commissions were relatively modest and included sharing illustrations for La Fontaine's Fables with Carton Moore Park and Uncle Remus with Harry Rountree. Together with several of his London Sketch Club colleagues, Bull also contributed to The Stock Exchange Christmas Annual 1905-6.

However, more substantial work was on the horizon as new editions of The Arabian Nights and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, published in 1912 and 1913 respectively, allowed him to make full use of both his fertile imagination and his first hand experience of eastern cultures. Also in 1913 his vivid paintings for The Russian Ballet cemented his position as a leading illustrator of the day. Two more books, Carmen and The Old Man of the Mountains were illustrated by Bull, both published in 1916, before the First World War claimed his attention.
During the war Bull served in the RNVR, reaching the rank of lieutenant before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, where he achieved the rank of major. He was later employed within the Air Ministry. After the war I believe Bull spent some time in America, painting and lecturing, but I have yet to see any examples of his work during this period.

Between the wars, Bull illustrated a handful of titles including a version of Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen and a reprint of the ever-popular Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. He also contributed to various children's annuals published by Blackie. However, his most iconic work was reserved for one of his commercial clients, W A & A C Churchman, who used Bull's designs on two very colourful series of cigarette cards.

The first of these, titled 'Eastern Proverbs', consisted of two sets of 25 standard sized cards with the majority of the sketches also appearing in four series of 12 large sized cards. These were issued between 1931 and 1934 and proved very popular. Then in 1936 Bull was commissioned to prepare designs for a series of 40 cards titled 'Howlers'. of which 16 were chosen for a larger sized version. The texts for this series, supposedly based on schoolboy howlers, were dire but the comic images are admirable.

Apart from his artistic talents, René Bull was a great enthusiast of model railways and was able to construct his own working locomotives . I have found no reports that Bull ever married which might explain why he was able to construct a series of tracks which ran round the dining room of his flat in Baron's Court, London. René Bull died on 13 April 1942.

Books by René Bull
Black and White War Albums - Snapshots by René Bull. London, Black & White Printing & Publishing Co, 1899.
A Day of My Life on Board the Aberdeen Line T.S.S. Themistocles. London, Howard Jones, c.1911.

Books Illustrated by René Bull
Fate's Intruder by F A Savile & A E T Watson. London, William Heinemann, 1905.
La Fontaine's Fables, A Selection translated by Edward Shirley; illus. with Carton Moore Park. London, Thomas Nelson, 1905.
Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris; illus. with Harry Rountree. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons 1906.
The Arabian Nights. London. Constable & Co, 1912.
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translated by Edward Fitzgerald. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1913.
The Russian Ballet by A E Johnson. London, Constable & Co, 1913.
Carmen by Prosper Merimee, translated by A. E. Johnson. London, Hutchinson & Co, 1916.
The Old Man of the Mountain by Herbert Strang. London, Henry Frowde; Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
A Garland of Rose's: collected Poems by Rose Fyleman. London, Methuen & Co, 1928.
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. London, Wells Gardner, Darton & Co, 1928.
Selections of Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. London, William Clowes and Sons, Ltd, 1930.
Two Legs and Four by Anthony Armstrong. London, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1930.
Brer Rabbit Plays by Elizabeth Fleming. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1936.

Books, Annuals etc Containing Illustrations by René Bull
The Stock Exchange Christmas Annual 1905-6 by W A Morgan. Enfield, F Wetherman, 1905.
Blackie's Children's Annual (various editions) London & Glasgow, Blackie & Son, 1925-1929.
Zoo Friends. London & Glasgow, Blackie & Son, 1939.


  1. I remember thinking as a 5 year old how I liked this 'lady's' work. 'She' was one of the first I could identify easily (even when no signature appeared!) Ah the innocence of youth - and lack of the French language!

  2. Great blog and very interesting history - thanks for sharing it -

  3. Great feature. I love this kind of stuff. Great artist too.

  4. Very nice site. I grew up with an 'empty' book with a dozen enchanting but half finished Indian ink line drawings in it by Bull. ( The Arabian Nights ) Rene was a friend of my father's and my god father. I never met him as my family moved to South Africa and he died before our temporary return when i met his widow -1948/9. She still lived in their magical old cottage with very sloping upstairs floors! But in the living room were two, possibly three, magnificently detailed miniature (but large) steam engines in glass cases that really worked I was told.
    My mother was fed up with my "aunty" as she had given her half a dozen eggs (very hard to come by in a time of rationing). She was delighted with them a gave them to her beloved dogs! I thought the book was lost but recently my sister (a retired antiques dealer now in Australia) sent me 9 framed prints which she had removed and had hanging in her home for many years.

  5. Robert Kirkwood posted a correction to the above but to a different post. The correction notes:

    "Error above. Rene did not marry. It was his sister that I met not his widow."

  6. Very interesting and well-researched. However, René Bull did marry and was divorced. (Katherine Shields was his wife). An acrimonious split, and even in later census returns he describes himself as "single" rather than "divorced", i.e. as if it never happened.
    Bull's father (Cornelius) was a supplier of ecclesiastical garments and also a church furniture designer: the firm was on Dublin's Suffolk Street for many decades.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Hi Robert,
    I am an art historian currently researching the estate of Rene Bull and wonder if you could help me out. You say you met his wife... does he have any relatives alive today (no matter how distant?)
    Thank you!



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