Rupert Bear's adventures around Surrey
PUBLISHED: 12:48 25 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:54 25 January 2016
One of the most popular characters in children's literature, Rupert Bear continues to delight generations of young readers to this day. But what many people don't realise is that the bear with the yellow-checked trousers has his roots very much in our county. Aly Warner follows in his footsteps
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2016
Heading to Milford down a sylvan Surrey lane to the home of Caroline Bott, god-daughter of Alfred Edmeades Bestall, author and illustrator of Rupert Bear, I am reminded of my own childhood. I would often spend a winter’s afternoon poring over my family’s Rupert annuals, passed down from generation to generation, featuring woodland tales of Rupert Bear, Bill Badger, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig and other jolly animal chums from Nutwood village.
As it turns out, it’s hardly surprising that the local scenery has conjured up childhood memories. When I mention it to Caroline, she reveals that several Surrey locations appear in Alfred’s celebrated drawings of Rupert Bear over a period of nearly 40 years (1935 to 1973). Pointing to an illustration on the wall of her home, she says: “He definitely included Silent Pool in Albury, near Guildford, in this 1956 drawing, for example.”
She adds: “He would never draw a map of Nutwood though, or indicate where his inspiration specifically came from, but said it was an amalgamation of Surrey locations and Snowdonia, where he owned a holiday cottage.”
Caroline’s father was Alfred’s first cousin and after he sadly died (working on the Burma-Siam railways during the Second World War), lifelong bachelor “Uncle Fred” had a very special relationship with Caroline and her brother. Not only did he give her away at her wedding but he was later a “surrogate grandfather” to her three children. So when Alfred died in 1986, it was only natural that Caroline should become the custodian of his personal collection of Rupert Bear drawings, as well as his many paintings for leading publications such as Punch and Tatler (from 1923 to 1930).
“On his 93rd birthday, I went to visit him in hospital and he told me that he had given me his beloved cottage in Wales [which is still in the family] and that I would find all his early artwork in the loft,” she recalls. “He joked that I would have to have a bonfire!”
Thankfully, Caroline did not put a match to the wonderful artworks she discovered at his former home and now has an enviable collection of Rupert Bear drawings as well as various cartoons, sketchbooks from his travels to Egypt and the Middle East, and personal memorabilia – such as Alfred’s tiny paintbox, paintbrushes, MBE medal and a letter from an admiring Enid Blyton. These are now on private display in a large, securely-guarded, darkened exhibition room in Milford. This unique collection, which has been catalogued by Caroline over many years, will be bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
“I was thrilled when the Bodleian agreed to accept the collection, as the Bodleian Library is one of the oldest – and most important – libraries in Europe,” says Caroline. “It means students and scholars from all over the world can have access to the collection in the future.”
Back in Alfred’s loft, it was only when she opened “all the brown paper parcels neatly tied up with string” that Caroline “realised the extent and versatility of his pre-Rupert work”. During the First World War, he had submitted comical drawings to a soldiers’ publication and after the war attended the LCC Central School of Art in London. He also illustrated about 50 books.
“He was a modest man and reticent to talk about his work,” she continues. “But I remember a family expedition to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1949 to see his Surrey oil painting Park Farm, Oxted in Winter. His painting of his Surbiton air raid warden post was also hung at the Royal Academy in 1941.”
Keen to celebrate the full achievements of this great artist, in 2003 Caroline wrote Alfred’s biography, “using his own words as much as possible” with the help of his diaries and letters. “In my view, what emerges is a picture of a versatile artist and an endearing man who, though very much of his own time, still has great resonance for people of all ages in the 21st century,” she says .
Alfred’s illustrious life began in 1892, in Mandalay, Burma (now Myanmar), where his parents were Methodist missionaries, before Alfred and his sister Maisie moved to Britain in 1897. After his father became a minister in Woking during the First World War, his Surrey links were various and long-standing (see panel at the foot of this page).
But it is, of course, for his work on Rupert Bear for the Daily Express that he is best remembered, with his many fans including Monty Python’s Terry Jones, who made a Rupert Bear documentary in 1982, and HRH The Prince of Wales, who sent him a telegram following his MBE award, indicating how much he had enjoyed his illustrations.
His work began at the national newspaper in 1935, when the Express offered him the chance to take over the Rupert Bear feature, following the retirement of its originator, Mary Tourtel. For the next 30 years, Alfred was to draw the daily panels – of the “small boy with a bear’s head”, yellow- checked trousers, scarf and red top – and write the stories (though not the rhymes).
In 1981, Alfred recalled a Rupert panel would take him “about three hours from start to finish and I always tried to maintain a steady schedule of three panels a day in order that I could keep ahead.” These stories continued to be published during the Second World War, without a break, except for one day when the Express decided they needed the whole page for one of Winston Churchill’s speeches.
His brief from the paper’s editor was that there must be no “bad characters”, no magic and no fairies. Instead, he introduced elves, an Old Professor and a Chinese Conjuror – as well as three Surbiton Girl Guides on one occasion, after they approached him personally in 1947 to be included in Rupert’s adventures. In December 1970, he told the Surrey Comet newspaper: “The thought of Rupert being in people’s homes and in so many children’s heads was a perpetual anxiety to me.”
However, Rupert Bear’s fame never made him a rich man. Incredibly, Alfred admitted late in life that: “I have never asked for money for my work in the Daily Express. I have of course been paid a little for my artwork, but I have never asked or been offered anything at all for the stories, which are the vital element… I could never align the stories with finance.”
Besides creating over 270 Rupert adventures, he also produced the iconic Christmas annuals, which began in 1936. He continued to contribute to them until his 90th year, incorporating paper-folding tricks for children to follow, based on his love of origami.
Alfred sent Caroline her first annual when she was four years old and her family were living in Australia; latterly, her initials, CGW, appeared on the side of a purple trunk in the 1946 Christmas annual title-page drawing, Rupert and Rastus. At its height, the Rupert Annual sold 1.5 million copies one year and Alfred’s work is still among the stories reproduced in the latest 2016 Rupert annual.
Caroline points out that the annuals’ end papers (at the beginning or end of the book, fixed to the inside of the cover) “allowed Alfred more freedom to express his vivid imagination and artistic inventiveness; with exotic settings such as tropical islands, the seashore and cloud-capped palaces. He had so much fun with them!”
Perhaps the most celebrated of these was the illustration made famous by one of Alfred’s high-profile fans, Sir Paul McCartney, whom Alfred first met in 1972. The ex-Beatle was inspired to write his 1984 hit pop song, We All Stand Together (Frog Song), for an animated film, based on Alfred’s end-paper for the 1958 tale of Rupert and the Frog Chorus. McCartney later wrote a foreword to Caroline’s biography, describing Rupert Bear as “an institution” in Britain.
A shy man, who admitted to Caroline “personal publicity is not my line,” Alfred remained baffled by Rupert’s success: “I can only hope that the overwhelming affection that I have for children possibly shows itself through the stories,” he told her.
Back down that woodland lane in Surrey, Caroline concludes our interview with a fitting tribute to Alfred from the late Sir Hugh Casson, eminent past-president of the Royal Academy. Inscribed on the Bestall family memorial in Brookwood Cemetery, it says simply: “A quiet corner of British genius.” With the timeless appeal of Rupert Bear, millions of admirers worldwide, and here in Surrey, would surely agree.
* The Life and Works of Alfred Bestall by Caroline G Bott is available in paperback, published by Bloomsbury (ISBN 0 7475 7336 0). The private Alfred Bestall exhibition can be visited only by groups, on request, by prior arrangement. For details, contact Caroline Bott via email: email@example.com
Alfred’s Surrey life...
From 1914 onwards, Surrey was to play a large part in the life of Alfred Bestall.
“As children, we would go to the family’s Edwardian house in Surbiton to see ‘Uncle Fred’,” says Caroline. “And at our home in Surrey, he joined all our family celebrations.”
A keen musician, Alfred sang in the Surbiton Hill Methodist Church Choir for over 50 years and played the piano for the Sunday school (his parents having moved to Surbiton before the Second World War).
In 1939, he also became a Rotarian in Surbiton, where he was known as Bert, and remained a member until December 1960.
He was a keen sportsman too. In his youth, Alfred enjoyed going on a “bike spin” to popular Surrey beauty spot Newlands Corner near Guildford. Later, he would go on to become the longest-playing member of the Surbiton Church tennis club and vice president of the cricket club. He also played golf at Tyrrells Wood Golf Club, near Leatherhead.
Caroline recalls: “When he was 90, he was playing table tennis with our daughter in our house and fell over and broke his left hip.” The next day, he had a hip replacement in the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford; but, according to Caroline, “he was only sorry he missed the shot!”
After his death, Alfred was commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at his former home in Cranes Park, Surbiton (1936-66), where he created more than 200 Rupert tales. He is buried at Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, where his grave is marked by a memorial.
The bear necessities
A brief timeline highlighting the key events in the life of Alfred Bestall
1892: Born on December 14 in Mandalay, Burma
1904-11: Studies at Rydal Mount School in Colwyn Bay
1910-14: His father, Arthur, is a minister in Wolverhampton
1911-14: Attends Central School of Arts & Crafts, Birmingham
1914-20: His father becomes a minister in Woking; family moves to York Road, Woking
1915: Enlists in the Mechanical Transport Corps
1916-18: Spends time in the trenches during the war
1920-24: Bestall family moves to Guilford Avenue, Surbiton
1922: First drawing published in Punch magazine
1924: Travels to Egypt; moves to Sutherland House Avenue in Surbiton
1924: His father becomes a minister in Southsea
1930-33: His father is a minster in Dorchester, Dorset
1935: Begins writing and illustrating Rupert stories for the Daily Express
1936: His father dies in Surbiton; Alfred moves to Stavordale in Cranes Park, Surbiton; first annual is published
1941: Becomes an air raid warden in Surbiton
1949: His oil painting Park Farm, Oxted in Winter is hung at the Royal Academy
1950-73: Contributes end-papers to Rupert annuals
1956: Buys a holiday cottage, Penlan, in Beddgelert, North Wales
1959: Mother Rebecca dies, aged 100
1965: Retires from creating the Rupert daily strip
1966-77: Moves to Beaconsfield House in Ewell Road, Surbiton
1972: Paul and Linda McCartney visit his Welsh cottage with their children
1980-86: Moves to his holiday cottage in Wales
1985: Awarded the MBE in Birthday Honours List
1986: Alfred dies on January 15 in Wales and is buried in plot 100 of Brookwood, near Woking (see Surrey Life, November 2015 issue, for more on the cemetery)