Tom Browne was possibly the most important artist in British comics. He died 100 years ago this week, on March 16th 1910, aged just 39, yet his influence on comic strips was considerable.
Born in Nottingham in 1872 (or 1870 depending on the source) and educated at a National school, he began work at the age of 11 as an errand boy in the Nottingham Lace Market. By the age of 14 he was serving as an apprentice at a firm of lithographic printers where he developed his artistic skills sketching cartoons. He also became a student at the Nottingham School of Art and sold his first professional cartoon in 1888 to Scraps. Impressed by the fee paid to him by the publisher Browne continued to moonlight for the comic papers whilst serving the rest of his apprenticeship.
At the age of 21 or thereabouts he moved to London to embark on what The Strand Magazine called "a hard struggle to obtain a foothold in London illustrated journalism". However he managed to earn a living as a comic artist, providing cartoons and strips for various weeklies. It was in one of those comics, Illustrated Chips No.298, dated May 16th 1896, where his most famous creations first appeared in a front page strip called Innocents on the River.
The protagonists of the strip, two tramps named Weary Waddles and Tired Timmy, impressed the editor G.H. Cantle so much that he asked Browne to continue them as a regular feature. Over the months the characters evolved in look as well as in name, becoming Weary Willie and Tired Tim, one of the most popular strips in British comics, running on the cover of Chips for 57 years until its final issue in 1953 (drawn from 1909 to 1953 by Percy Cocking).
Tom Browne brought techniques to comics that are still being used by comic artists today. Realising that the accepted norm of fine rendering and cross-hatching would not be appropriate for the cheap standard of printing that the early comic papers used Browne developed a simpler but nonetheless detailed style of solid blacks and bolder lines. His drawings also had a lively amount of comedy to them, with his characters falling into chaotic situations and exaggerating the slapstick into what would become a much imitated traditional comic style.
Tom Browne's popular tramps had an influence outside of comics too. They became the stars of several short British comedy films in the early 1900's, although sadly those films are now lost. However it was either these movies or, most likely, the comic strips themselves that influenced Charlie Chaplin in creating his world famous tramp character. Chaplin himself said "I started the tramp to make people laugh because those other old tramps, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, had always made me laugh."
Let's consider the importance of Chaplin's comment for a moment: the little tramp, one of the most iconic characters in cinema history, was influenced by Tom Browne's cover strip of Illustrated Chips. The similarities are obvious once one thinks about it: the flat-footed style, the ill-fitting jacket, the good-natured traveller flitting from one adventure to the next, and of course the slapstick sequences themselves. (In turn of course comic strips themselves would heavily borrow from the silent movies.)
Tom Browne was also prolific in areas other than comics. In 1897 he used his by-then considerable savings to establish a lithographic colour printing firm, Tom Browne & Co. in Nottingham. (The firm lasted until 1954 when it was acquired by the printers Hazel, Watson, and Viney Ltd.) He became a famous black and white artist and was quite a celebrity in his day, with exhibitions and events in his life being reported in the national press. (Such as this photograph below, of Browne in Geneose merchant's clothes for the Lord Mayor's Show in 1907.)
On April Fool's Day 1898, along with his fellow artists Phil May, Dudley Hardy, Walter Churcher, and Cecil Aldin, Browne founded the Sketch Club in London's Dilke Street. (The club is still going today, and for a while in the 1980s was the venue for the Society of Strip Illustration.) In 1901 Browne became a member of the Royal Institute of Painters and Water Colours.
In 1902 Tom Browne provided 95 illustrations for the book The Night Side of London, written by Robert Machray. A fascinating insight into London of the period, it saw writer and artist journey around the city to observe and interact with society in all its forms. The most striking aspect of the book is in its depictions of the dichotomy between rich and poor. Browne's own poverty-stricken background came in useful here to convey the hardship of the characters he'd met.
Due to the better printing process used in The Night Side of London Browne was able to produce some impressive grey wash illustrations as well as more detailed line work. The illustrations show his skills at caricature and figure work, and the ease in which he could capture the personality and mood of the era.
One chapter of the book, La Vie De Boheme, recounts lighthearted evenings at the Sketch Club, with members entertaining each other with songs, ventriloquism and impersonations. It all seems a very relaxed atmosphere and woe betide anyone who entered wearing anything as formal as a starched shirt front for it would soon be filled with drawings by the artists present. However considering the quality of the artists this was no doubt perceived as an honour.
A cheery character by all accounts Tom Browne was also a popular artist of comic postcards, which gave him the opportunity to work in colour. Again, using an economy of line and spotting his blacks carefully, Browne's style was ideal for this format and the cards are still highly collectible today.
Postcards featuring Dutch characters became a popular fad of the early 20th Century and Browne also illustrated many of those. Landscapes were another subject he painted although it was his character studies and figure work in which he excelled. Other publications included Tom Browne's Comic Annual, Tom Browne's Cycle Sketch Book and The Khaki Alphabet Book.
Browne was also in the Territorial Army, as shown by this clipping from the Daily Mirror of 8th August 1908.
What becomes evident when researching Tom Browne's work is how much he accomplished in his short life. He had risen from poverty to celebrity, becoming one of the most famous black and white artists of his day. The techniques he brought into comics would later be seen in the work of Dudley Watkins and Leo Baxendale and many others, even remaining an indirect influence on artists to this day.
After a long illness Tom Browne died of throat cancer at his home in Westcombe Park near Greenwich on Wednesday March 16th 1910. At his funeral at Shooter's Hill, his fellow soldiers from the T.A. fired a salute over his grave as tribute. From humble beginnings Tom Browne left over £18,000 in his will to his wife and children, - a considerable fortune by 1910 standards.
I think most of us working in British humour comics owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Tom Browne, even though we may not be aware of it. Any study of his comic work reveals techniques either blatant or subtle that we still employ today, whether it's in the body language of the characters or an approach to inking. The history of comics would certainly have been considerably different without him, and, I would venture, not half as funny.
Reference and further reading:
The Penguin Book of Comics George Perry & Alan Aldridge 1971
The Strand Magazine January 1902
Happy Days Denis Gifford 1975
The Night Side of London Robert Machray & Tom Browne 1902
Synopsis of one of the Weary Willie and Tired Tim films: