Before Paddington, there was Pooh. And before Pooh, there was Rupert!
Hats off today to Rupert Bear, one of the oldest and most enduring humanized bear characters in children’s fiction. What, you say you don’t know him? I didn’t either, until I got into bear collecting, and learned that Rupert is actually 6 years older than Pooh, and 8 years older than Mickey Mouse. This also makes him the longest running children’s comic character in history.
"Nutwood in Spring," by John Harrold
Now, if I had grown up in the UK, Rupert would have been a household name. He was created by children’s book illustrator Mary Tourtel, and first appeared in a Daily Express comic strip in 1920. Mary’s husband, a night editor for the Express, wrote the captions for Mary’s pictures. The stories took place in the idyllic English village of Nutwood with Rupert and his friends Bill Badger, Pong Ping, Algy Pug, and Edward Trunk, among others, and included adventures with fairies, pirates, unicorns, wizards, knights, crooks, and magic carpets.
"Flight of the Firebird," by John Harrold
Though Mary created Rupert, we must credit Alfred Bestall (who stepped in after Mary retired), with improving the stories and plots and creating the classic Rupert story format familiar today. This enables readers of various ages to appreciate the stories on 4 levels — by following the summary headers of the strips, by reading the two line verse captions under each frame, by reading the prose narration of the story, or by simply enjoying the pictures in sequence.
"The Mysterious Garden," by John Harrold
Bestall also created additional art for the Rupert Annuals, first appearing in 1936 and continuing today. After Bestall retired at the age of 90 in 1973, several other artists have taken up the mantle, including John Harrold, whose illustrations are featured in this post. The Annuals have enabled children to fully embrace Rupert, whose stories, unlike those about Pooh, take place in a contemporary setting, complete with a cosy home and supportive parents.
Rupert Bear Annual No. 72, Egmont Books, Ltd., 2007
American children may know Rupert through his animated television series (sample Rupert cartoon here), which has aired on Nickelodeon and CBS. A new series, "Follow the Magic," features a decidedly younger Rupert, who, strangely enough, looks more like Pooh. As far as I know, this series only airs in Great Britain.
But guess who else loves Rupert? In 1984 Sir Paul McCartney and Geoff Dunbar created a short animated film called "Rupert and the Frog Song," which features Paul’s "We All Stand Together," (also included on his Pipes of Peace album). After noting that his own children loved Rupert as much as he did, Paul dug out his old Rupert Annuals and set to work. He initially wrote music for a full-length film, but plans were shelved. Still, the short film won a British Academy Award, and the video of "We All Stand Together" won a Grammy in 1986 for Best Music Video — Short Form. (Watch it here.)
Rupert will be 88 in November, and shows no signs of slowing down. With over 50 million books sold, an appearance every morning in the Daily Express, a much anticipated Annual published every year, as well as prints, videos, DVD’s, and assorted memorabilia for sale, Rupert’s longstanding, continuous appeal to young and old alike is definitely something to cheer about. Hip hip hooray!
All Rupert Bear images posted by permission, © Entertainment Rights Distribution, Ltd./Express Newspapers 2007. All rights reserved.
*The John Harrold images included in this post, as well as several others, are available as signed, limited edition glicee prints through Art of Illustration.