Bert Thomas was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, on 13 October 1883, the son of Job Thomas, a sixty-five year old monumental sculptor who had helped decorate the Houses of Parliament. In 1897, at the age of fourteen, Thomas was apprenticed to an engraver in Swansea, engraving names on doorplates and monograms on cutlery. He sketched in his spare time, and sold his first cartoon to the magazine Pick-Me-Up, subsequently providing music-hall cartoons to the Swansea Daily Leader, Daily Post, News and Echo. When he was seventeen Sir George Newnes, MP for Swansea and founder of the Strand Magazine, saw some of his drawings and published them.
In 1900 Albert Chevalier, a popular music-hall comedian, paid Thomas £5 to design a poster, and this was so successful that Chevalier persuaded him to move to London. This venture ended in a return to Swansea, but in 1902 Thomas went back to London, and Chevalier got him a job in an advertising agency. Percy Bradshaw recalled that his title was "Art Editor" - "which really meant that he knocked out advertising ideas with lightning rapidity, and spent his plentiful spare time doing joke illustrations for the humorous papers." Thomas freelanced for Pick-Me-Up and Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, and in 1905 he began a long association with Punch, which he later estimated had published more than a thousand of his cartoons. In 1909 he began an even longer association with London Opinion, contributing political and social cartoons, and latterly the popular "Child's Guide" to celebrities series.
In 1913 The Times praised Thomas's caricatures at the second exhibition of the Society for Humorous Art, but his most famous cartoon was produced in the early months of the First World War, when he drew - supposedly in ten minutes - a grinning Cockney Tommy lighting a pipe with the caption "'Arf a Mo', Kaiser!" This appeared in the Weekly Dispatch of 11 November 1914, as part of the paper's tobacco-for-troops fund, which raised an estimated £250,000. In 1916 Thomas enlisted as a private in the Artists' Rifles, but later served as an official war artist for the National Savings Campaign. In 1918 he drew Britain's largest poster, an appeal to invest in War Bonds which covered the face of the National Gallery. Painted in oils, it was seventy-five feet long and showed Drake facing the Spanish Armada. Thomas produced similar posters at the Royal Exchange, and in Cardiff and Glasgow, and in June 1918 was awarded an MBE for his contributions to the war effort.
After the war Thomas produced a full-page series of red-and-black cartoons for the Sketch, and was a freelance illustrator for the "Cockney Spirit in the War" letters column which ran in the London Evening News from 1929, a collection being published in 1930. In 1936 he joined the staff of the Evening News, to illustrate a new series of readers' letters under the title "'Arf a Mo'' Stories." He also contributed to Humorist, Men Only, Sketch, Passing Show, Radio Times, Bystander, Fun, Graphic and the World. During the Second World War Thomas again produced memorable posters, including the series "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?", which he drew in 1942 for the Railway Executive Committee. In addition he drew advertisements for Oxo, Player's Navy Cut Cigarettes, Eno's, Hector Powe, Comfort Soap and others, designed postcards for Gale & Polden, and was on the Advisory Staff of Bradshaw's Press Art School.
For his Punch work Thomas usually drew in pen and ink, but elsewhere he mostly used a brush, a favourite technique being to use an old matted brush on Whatman or Clifford Milburn board to get a chalk-like line. He also worked in charcoal and wash, pencil, chalk-grain scraperboard, litho chalk and 'splatter' - tint obtained by splattering a toothbrush dipped in ink. An admirer of Charles Keene, Henry Ospovat, Eduard Thony and Phil May, he never used models or made on-the-spot sketches. Thomas was a member of the Savage Club and the Chelsea Arts Club. His contributions to Punch continued until 1948, and he only stopped drawing for London Opinion in 1954, when that magazine ceased publication. Bert Thomas died on 6 September 1966.
- The Times, 4 December 1913; p.11 col.4, "Humour In Art."
- CSCC Archive, cuttings of Evening News, 18 November 1936, "Bert Thomas Joins the Evening News"; Daily Telegraph, 7 September 1966, "Obituary: Bert Thomas, Artist of 'Arf a Mo'."
- CSCC Archive, cutting of Percy Bradshaw "They Make Us Smile: Bert Thomas" (1942).
- Draper Hill, introductory essay to Cartoons & Caricatures by Bert Thomas, exhibition catalogue for Boston Public Library, 1965, pp.3-7.
- The Times, 7 September 1966, p.14 col.6, "Mr Bert Thomas."
- Mark Bryant Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000), pp.222-3.
505 catalogued originals (BT0001 - 0565)