Cyril Kenneth Bird, CBE (1887-1965), known as ‘Fougasse’
As cartoonist, art editor and editor, Kenneth Bird transformed the style of Punch. His own contributions pared down human activity with such economy as to suggest the essence of modern life. This approach also had a significant influence on advertising, as in the emphasis on the elegant streamlining of Austin Reed’s ‘New Tailoring’.
Kenneth Bird was born at 26 Westbourne Terrace Road, Paddington, London, on 17 December 1887, the younger son of Arthur Bird, London merchant and England cricketer, and his wife, Mary (née Wheen). He was educated at Warwick House, Maida Vale (1893-98), Farnborough Park School, Hampshire (1898-1902), and Cheltenham College (1902-4), before reading Civil Engineering at King’s College, London (1904-8). He also took evening classes at the Regent Street Polytechnic and the LCC School of Photo-Engraving and Lithography, Bolt Court, Fleet Street.
A good sportsman, especially at rugby, ‘he would have been certain of his cap for Scotland’ had he not been knocked unconscious during the final international trials in 1913 (Peter Mellini, ODNB, page 819).
Becoming a machine-gun instructor in the Artists’ Rifles (1904-8) and working at Rosyth naval base (1909-14), Bird served in the Royal Engineers in the First World War. However, he was invalided out when shot in the spine at Gallipoli (1915). As a result, he was unable to continue in his chosen profession of engineer and turned instead to illustration, strengthening his talents by taking a correspondence course with Percy Bradshaw’s Press Art School. He was encouraged in this by his wife, the painter and printmaker, Mary Holden Bird (née Caldwell), whom he had married in 1914. (he and his wife would hold four joint shows at the Fine Art Society in the period 1924-33.)
From 1916, Bird contributed to a number of periodicals, including Punch, using the pseudonym ‘Fougasse’, in order to distinguish himself from ‘W Bird’, the pen name of Jack B Yeats. Fougasse is a French word for an unpredictable mine, which hinted at his past injuries and implied that his drawings would be full of surprises. With this identity in place, he ‘refined his cartooning style into a modernist shorthand’ (Peter Mellini, loc cit). Two decades later, in 1937, he succeeded George Morrow as Punch’s Art Editor. His work proved particularly popular during the Second World War, including as it did the immortal series, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’.
Bird’s influential, economical draughtsmanship won him the role as the only artist to be Editor of Punch (1949-53). Much more sociable than his predecessor, E V Knox, he encouraged contributors to visit the office and discuss their work. He also modernised the layout, and introduced two double-pages a week of descriptive reporting from around Britain.
The author of The Good-Tempered Pencil (1956), a survey of humorous art, Bird also published his own posters and cartoons regularly in book format. In addition, he lectured on cartooning on the radio and was a member of the BBC ‘Brains Trust’. He was elected a Fellow of King’s College, London, in 1936, and created a CBE in 1946.
Bird died at his London home, in Swan Court, Chelsea, on 11 June 1965. A memorial exhibition was held in the following year at the Fine Art Society.
His work is represented in the collections of the London Transport Museum and the V&A.
Bevis Hillier (ed), Fougasse, London: Elm Tree Books, 1977;
Peter Mellini, ‘Bird, (Cyril) Kenneth [pseud. Fougasse] (1887-1965)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 5, pages 818-820