Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story of "Bubbles"  

Tony Allen


What was the connection between a respected pre-Raphaelite Victorian illustrator, an equally well-known 20th century comic cartoonist and a British prisoner of war?

Well, the first did a painting that was to become world famous. The cartoonist and the World War 1 internee - created their own version of it almost 60 years later.

The Victorian illustrator was John Everett Millais who, as a young man was one of the founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose aim was to “attack the complacency of the Royal Academy by painting in a new style with bright colours, wiry outlines and minute detail.“

However, by the time Millais came to paint the picture (which became famous when it was used over a long period in advertisements for Pears soap) he was in his 50s and “had abandoned the pre-Raphaelite style and adopted darker colours and looser brushwork.“  Miliais named his new painting “A Child’s World”.


The Painting

Painted in 1885-86, this 'oil on canvas' portrays a young golden-haired boy looking up at a bubble "symbolising the beauty and fragility of life" On his left side is a young plant growing in a pot and on the other, a pot that has fallen and broke, representing death. The boy model was Willie James, aged five and the artist’s grandson. He later became an admiral.

During the 'sitting', Millais suspended a specially manufactured glass globe above the child's head and moved it around as a guide - to determine the best position to place the Bubble on the canvas.

In 1886, Sir William Ingram, proprietor of the London Illustrated News bought the painting and the copyright from Millais. It was reproduced as a colour plate and presented in the Christmas issue of the weekly magazine.

ww1 The Pear's Soap Advert

The Pear's Soap Advert

Thomas J. Barrett, Managing Director of Pears (and a pioneer of modern advertising methods) saw the colour plate and the potential of the picture. Barrett  purchased the original painting from Ingram for £2,500 - with exclusive copyright. Barrett also got permission from Millais, to add a bar of Pears soap so that the painting could be used for advertising purposes.

Although Millais was one of the most popular artists in Britain at the time, initially he was apprehensive of "the prospect of his work and his grandson, being the subject of commercial exploitation." However, he soon grew to appreciate the idea, "which portrayed the soap as if the child had used it to make bubbles." In addition, Millais had to defend himself from attacks, when he was unfairly criticised by members of the art establishment who thought he had degraded his art.

 Around the turn of the century, Pears produced a number of different designs of advertising postcards featuring “Bubbles”. On the reverse of the cards was text outlining the advantages of using Pears Soap.

Bubbles postcard
Bubbles Pears Soap postcard

       While the picture on these postcards is the same - the captions are different

The Great War and "Bubbles"

Almost 60 years after Millias created his famous painting "A child's world", artists both professional and amateur were drawing inspiration from it for their own work. For example, a few weeks after the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, a comic postcard artist drew a cartoon lampooning the German Kaiser and based the drawing on ”Bubbles” and called it that name too.

ww1 Kaiser Bill and Bubbles postcard

Kaiser Bill

This cartoon, clearly based on Millias's "Bubbles", appeared early in the war.

Postcard artists and publishers were quick to choose 'Kaiser Bill' as their target for satire and caricature and numerous cards lampooning him, and his son 'Little Willie', were soon on sale in the postcard racks.

In 1914, Bamforth's produced over 80 cards – printed in black on a cream background – in their anti-Kaiser ‘War Cartoons’ series and "Bubbles" was number 5005. The artist did not sign the illustrations, which were dramatic and showed sharp political humour. Doug Tempest is thought to have been the artist.


In 1917, a prisoner in Ruhleben camp - which held British civilian internees - painted an illustration for a Christmas postcard - which he clearly based on Millias’s painting - and called it “Troubles”.     

ww1 postcard clearly based on Millias’s painting it was called “Troubles”.

PoW camp artist

This picture, titled Troubles?", was by the Ruhleben camp artist P. P. Wood. The card was mailed from the 'Englanderlager Ruhleben' by Willie Flagster to a relative in Brighton. On the back of it is a Ruhleben 'F. a' censor mark and a 'London FS/PAID/Jan 4 18' receiving postmark. The rising steam from the plate of food spells out '1918'. Hoping that this year would be the last year of the war  And it was.


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