Saturday, May 14, 2011

NUTS ABOUT NUTWOOD

Ceaselessly cheerful, tirelessly plucky and endlessly resourceful Rupert Bear is ninety years old and yet as youthful as ever.

Rupert first appeared in November 1920 in a comic strip created by Mary Tourtel for the Daily Express newspaper as part of its bid to win readers from their rivals the Daily Mail which featured a popular strip about Teddy Tail.

In 1935, when Mary Tourtel retired, the task of drawing Rupert - and writing his adventures - fell to illustrator and Punch artist, Alfred Bestall.


The following year Bestall produced the evocative art for The New Adventures of Rupert - the very first Rupert Annual…


Out of respect to the Rupert’s creator, Bestall - a modest, self-effacing man - didn’t sign his artwork until after Mary Tourtel’s death in 1948.

Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated a staggering 273 Rupert stories (mostly for the daily newspaper publication but with others produced specially for the annuals) until his own retirement in 1965.

I only ever saw the newspaper strip when I visited my paternal grandparents, but I was given several Rupert annuals over the years, this being the first...


Heaven only knows where it is now!

What I really loved about Rupert was the format of the albums: the running headings that were a synopsis of each story with little figures in the top corner of each page; the four-frame picture-story, the rhyming couplets that told the story under each picture in not-very-sophisticated doggerel and then the prose telling of the tale that appeared at the bottom of the page just as it did under the panels in the newspaper.


Then there were the activities-pages with puzzles, origami models (which I never successfully made) and, in later numbers, magic painting pages.

And, for me, the highlight of ever annual: Bestall’s wonderful full-colour wrap-around cover plus those enchanting endpapers showing the coutryside around Nutwood and other wonderful landscapes - sometimes seascapes - that combined the real and fanciful into a dreamworld that still haunt the memory…

Then, of course there were the stories - packed with wild escapades, amazing expeditions curious inventions and extraordinary characters that secure these little narratives a place among the most inventive writing for children in the twentieth century.

There were mysteries, too, such as why it was that inside the books Rupert had a white face, hands and boots but on the cover was a brown bear in brown boots!

The one exception (right) was the 1973 annual where someone at the Daily Express impudently altered Alfred Bestall’s artwork for the cover in order to match the interior!

The dozen or so proof copies with a brown-faced Rupert (below) are greatly sought-after and hysterically valuable! In fact, it might just be worth checking your attics!



Another mystery, of course, was the way in which clothed animals and human beings - not to mention giants, wizards, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, goblins, pixies and living toys - cohabited in a fantastical universe.

Former Python (and Rupert-fan) Terry Jones once pointed out how Rupert encounters a talking cat, , in one story, and is utterly astonished by the fact as though he were not, himself a talking bear!

But then, in a way, Rupert isn’t really a bear he is a boy - a young child - you and I, the reader - wearing a bear-faced mask!


Equally curious was the fact that the human characters wear a wide range of costuming: medieval doublets and hose, Georgian knee-breeches and buckle shoes, Victorian skirts and bonnets, ‘twenties plus-fours and brogues and forties three-piece suits.

The last Rupert annual cover Alfred Bestall ever painted was that one on which Rupert turned white, but other artists carried on the work including Alex Cubie, John Harrold and Stuart Trotter who currently has care of the bear and who is, as can be seen from last year's 75th annual (below), a worthy inheritor of the Rupert legacy.


Thanks to everyone who keeps Rupert on the track of new adventures along with his chums - Bill Badger, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, Willy Mouse, Pong Ping the Pekingese and Edward Trunk...
"Goodness," said Rupert, "it's been such fun,
Ninety years and I've just begun!"

To learn more about Rupert's world, his creators and the annuals, visit The Followers of Rupert

And if you're in the market for some old Rupert Annuals, visit The Official Classic Rupert Bear Mail Order Shop


A version of this post first appeared on Brian Sibley: his blog

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