Break out the marmalade, Paddington Bear turns 60 this year!
On October 13, 1958, Michael Bond published the first book about our favorite ursine from darkest Peru, A Bear Called Paddington. The novel was inspired by a stuffed bear Bond rescued from a department store shelf on Christmas Eve, and it took all of ten days to write.
Today, Paddington boasts an international following with some 70 titles translated into 30 languages, with 30 million copies sold. A beloved British institution, Paddington shows no signs of slowing down with two very successful feature films, oodles of merchandising, and commemorative coins issued by the Royal Mint.
We can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by chatting with award winning author/illustrator R.W. Alley, who’s been drawing Paddington since 1997. Though there have been several other Paddington artists through the years (Peggy Fortnum was the first), to my knowledge only Mr Alley has illustrated Paddington quite as long, and in all formats — novels, picture books, board books, and early readers. He’s also the only American among the Paddington artists.
Bob first visited Alphabet Soup for the Robert’s Snow Auction in 2007, and I’m honored to welcome him back to reflect on his 20 years as official Paddington illustrator, with thoughts about Paddington at St Paul’s (HarperCollins, 2018), the last Paddington picture book Bond wrote before he passed away in June 2017.
In Paddington at St Paul’s, our irrepressible furry friend visits St Paul’s Cathedral with Mr Gruber. There’s lots of fun to be had as Paddington tours the majestic building and is even mistaken for a choir bear. The story was inspired by Bond’s own visit to St Paul’s in 2016, when he was asked to write a special tribute for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration.
We thank Bob for two decades of brilliant, charming, energetic, endearing, funny, captivating, playful, perky, marmalade-sticky pictures that have helped us envision Paddington’s many adventures as well as the full measure of his lovable personality and open heartedness.
Let’s hear it for Robert Whitlock Alley: just the right illustrator for just that kind of bear!
Paddington is known for his mishaps and misadventures. Did you have any funny or surprising misadventures of your own while working on any of the books?
Fortunately any artistic mishaps were mostly limited to random coffee spills and the occasional splooshing of ink from the pen nib as it caught on the fiber of the watercolor paper. These were cleverly worked into the art. Paddington’s fur is presented well by a coffee wash. And, it gives the art a happy scent. Otherwise, the closest thing to real misadventure was my near dropping of my cell phone over the railing of the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s. I was trying to be far too clever about taking sneaky pictures for the latest Paddington adventure.
Do you have a favorite among all the Paddington books you illustrated? If so, what do you especially like about it?
There are bits about all the books that make each special. However, the original story picture book does hold a special place. Not only because it’s the origin story, but because I illustrated it twice. Mr Bond insisted on a new version to keep up with the ever-changing architectural revision of Paddington Station. I could well imagine a third version might have been contemplated.
Keeping Paddington’s adventures current was always Mr Bond’s goal. That’s evidenced quite clearly by the new novels he wrote in recent years that dealt with Paddington’s status as an illegal immigrant to the UK. Those novels contain some of my favorite drawings. And, Paddington at St Paul’s will always be one of my favorites in a bittersweet way because it’s the only Paddington book that Mr Bond was never able to hold in his hands.
How has being Paddington’s illustrator for the last 20 years changed you as an artist and a person? What are you most proud of?
I’ve enjoyed being able to draw Paddington in all different formats. Board books to novels. I am forever grateful to Mr Bond for believing that I could adapt his characters visually to the variety of storytelling formats in which he so effortlessly composed.
Please tell us about “auditioning” for Mr Bond back in the mid 90’s. What was it about your work that convinced him you were the right artist for the job?
Mr Bond was very particular about how Paddington was presented in the books – as well he should have been. Through publishing mergers, a US publisher had acquired the rights to present anew Paddington to an American market. Luckily for me, I happened to be working on a series of books at the time for that same publisher and the editors thought my pen and ink and watercolor would work well with Paddington. So, I read all the novels and picture books, did up a suite of character drawings and with the editor headed off to London to present our wares.
Mr Bond and his wife Sue were gracious and kind in reviewing the art and showing us around Paddington’s London. It became clear to me that Mr Bond very much expected to meet Paddington coming around a corner at any moment.
While Mr Bond was pleased with most of my drawings, Mr Gruber clearly was not hitting the mark. That night I stayed up late in my hotel room redrawing. The next morning in showing the revised Mr Gruber to Mr Bond, I realized I’d basically done a soft caricature of the author. My new Mr Gruber was approved. I’m very glad I’d thought to pack my paints. They travel with me now, always.
Was there a lot of back-and-forth collaboration between you and Mr Bond after that, or were you pretty much given free rein with the pictures for each new manuscript?
We did have a lot of back and forth. Mr Bond would regularly send photos of the settings for whatever book we were working on. Getting the place right was very important to him. He also sent over drawings of Brown’s house as he envisioned it. All this was very helpful.
Once in awhile, Mr Bond would ask if there was something in particular that I liked to draw. Sometimes, these scenes would show up in a story.
Why did you stick with pen-and-ink and watercolor rather than going digital for all the Paddington books? What is your favorite part of the illustration process?
Making anything, especially art, in the physical world always involves a certain risk and pleasure of things not going quite as you’d planned. The digital world does not allow that variation. Not yet, at least.
I don’t have a favorite part of picture-making. Each part of the process has its own rewards. Completing the initial sketches for a full book is great fun. But, so is completing each phase of the finished artwork. And, mailing the whole thing off is not without its rewards, either.
Did you receive the Paddington at St Paul’s manuscript before or after Mr. Bond’s passing? Please share some general thoughts about illustrating the very last Paddington picture book.
Mr Bond had just completed the book. I had planned to visit the Cathedral that summer to make sure the details were right. As good as Mr Bond’s photo skills were, I thought this would be a good time to visit. As it turned out, he passed away before we could meet again. But, after his funeral and through the kindness of Sue, his wife, I was able to get a behind the scenes tour of the building and snap normally illegal shots of the places Paddington visits.
Tell us more about touring St Paul’s Cathedral and taking those “secret photos.”
The hardest part about picturing the Cathedral is its sheer size and fitting that into a 10×10 inch picture book while at the same time focusing on the human and bear characters. As with many Paddington adventures, the setting is an integral part of the story. Almost becoming a character in itself. So, it was important for me to visit in the same order that Paddington comes upon things at St Paul’s so that I understood how he goes from here to there.
Which Paddington at St Paul’s spread was the most fun to do, and why?
While the architectural spreads were fun – especially the vertical one looking up into the dome – my favorites are the one of Paddington with Mr Gruber watching for the arrival of the taxi and the near last drawing of the two at number 32 ending their day. In both, you’ll notice birds. Mr Bond was always partial to the birds in my illustrations. Especially the pigeons.
Though Paddington is celebrating his 60th Anniversary this year, he and the other characters never aged in the books.
Quite right. Instead the world changed around them. Which I think is part of the charm of the stories. The relationships of the characters remained consistent. Whatever new thing they confronted, it was navigated in a way the reader could trust and understand. You always knew where you stood with Paddington.
How have you kept the look of the stories fresh and contemporary (though still timeless) through the years?
It was easy. I just followed Mr Bond’s lead. The red buses needed updating now and then, but fortunately a duffle coat is always in style.
What do you think accounts for Paddington’s longevity?
First and foremost, Paddington is an optimist. And, he is truthful. And, he is not afraid to speak his mind when he notices an injustice. Of course, he’s also likely to misinterpret something or not fully understand a situation or possibly to choose not the best way of navigating out of a tight spot.
Finally, things just seem to happen to bears.
In retrospect, is there anything else you’d like us to know about working on the Paddington books and being a part of this wonderful literary legacy?
I know that I’m very fortunate to have had the chance to know Michael Bond, his family and Paddington in the way that I did. Like most things involving Paddington, friendships made through that bear are lasting.
QUICK BITES (Please complete these sentences):
Whenever I drew Paddington’s black ears . . . I had to be sure not to make them too prickly.
Marmalade sandwiches . . . are sticky.
That hard stare could . . . be very useful on the right occasion.
When it comes to buns and cocoa . . . one should never skimp on the cocoa.
Once Michael Bond . . . had an hour long conversation about how many pigeons live in Paddington station.
What other books are you working on now/can we look forward to?
I’ve recently written several books on my own and I’ve begun illustrations for new titles in James Preller’s clever Jigsaw Jones Mystery chapter book series. I’m in the middle of one right now.
PADDINGTON AT ST PAUL’S
written by Michael Bond
illustrated by R.W. Alley
published by HarperCollins, May 2018
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
♥️ Read Bob’s backstory about illustrating Paddington at St Paul’s in this blog post.
♥️ Some of R.W. Alley’s original Paddington ink and watercolors are available for purchase at R. Michelson Galleries.
♥️ Enjoy this video of the recent “Paddington Comes to America” exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, which ran from April 14 to October 7, 2018. R.W. Alley’s art was featured along with that of the other Paddington illustrators.
♥️ More Paddington Bear at Alphabet Soup:
- Paddington’s Bread and Butter Pudding with Marmalade
- Michael Bond’s 89th Birthday: Love from Paddington
- Apple Tarts from Paddington Bear’s Cookery Book
- Michael Bond’s 90th Birthday Celebration with Yogurt Marmalade Cake
🎂 HAPPY 60TH BIRTHDAY, PADDINGTON! 🎈🎉
“Bears like Paddington are very rare. And a good thing, too, if you ask me, or it would cost us a small fortune in marmalade.” ~ from More About Paddington by Michael Bond
* Interior spreads from Paddington at St Pauls, text copyright © 2018 Michael Bond, illustrations © 2018 R. W. Alley, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books. All rights reserved.
**All other Paddington illustrations copyright © R.W. Alley
*** Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.