Rupert Bear was first imagined and drawn by Mary Tourtel, although on his first appearance – in the Daily Express on 8 November 1920 – he was just called “the little lost bear”. She drew Rupert for 15 years, then handed him over to Alfred Edmeades Bestall, the best-known Rupert illustrator, in 1935. Bestall in turn drew Rupert for 30 years, giving up the regular role in 1965 – though he did continue to produce some special drawings for another 20 years. In the late 1940s Bestall was suffering from overwork, and handed over some of the Rupert work to Enid Ash. She was unable to draw Rupert’s face, so Bestall continued to do that while Ash took over some of the routine work. Alex Cubie drew Rupert from 1974-78. John Harrold (who lived in France) was the Rupert artist from 1978-August 2007, when Stuart Trotter took over. What is most remarkable about this string of artists is that Rupert still looks very much as he did when first drawn, though Tourtel’s pale blue jersey has given way to Bestall’s red one and at the same time his scarf and trousers, originally white with a black check design, changed to yellow with a black check. Little has changed in Rupert’s world since 1920! Rupert was originally drawn with a brown face, but this changed to white quite early on – though he kept the brown face much longer on the covers of the annuals.
The pre-Rupert lives of Tourtel and Bestall influenced what and how they drew. Tourtel (1874-1948) came from an artistic family; her father was a stonemason and her brother an animal illustrator. She attended the Sidney Cooper School of Art in Canterbury. After marrying Herbert Tourtel (a journalist and later sub-editor on the Daily Express) she illustrated children’s books. Through her husband she was invited to draw stories for the Express featuring animal characters, to rival the “Teddy Tail” stories in the Daily Mail and “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” in the Daily Mirror.
It is not clear whether Tourtel herself came up with the Rupert idea, but the captions were written by her husband. She was an early aviator, which helped explain the convincing aerial views that appeared in some of her Rupert stories. Rupert’s adventures in a fairy-tale world followed the style of other stories for children written in the 1920s. After her husband died in 1931, some of her stories became too elaborate and unconvincing, she repeated herself and her drawing style deteriorated after her eyesight began to fail.
Bestall (1892-1986) was born in Mandalay where his father was a Methodist missionary. The family returned to the UK and Bestall went to the Birmingham Central School of Art. He worked as a driver in the Great War. He became an artist and produced illustrations for Punch and The Tatler magazines as well as for many books. When he was invited to take over from Tourtel, her preoccupation with fairies and fantasy in the early Rupert stories came in for some criticism. Bestall said that “Marshall [then children’s editor of the Daily Express] took me aside and urged that I used no evil characters, no fairies and no magic.” Bestall adopted a more modern approach featuring cars, aircraft and machinery, but still retained Rupert’s settled family background and expanded his circle of friends. The plots and illustrations became more interesting and realistic. Bestall loved silent films and brought more film-like settings into the illustrations. He thought at first that he could continue with his other work as well as drawing Rupert, but soon found out that Rupert was a full-time occupation. From 1948, after Tourtel’s death, Bestall signed his work, a rare privilege for an illustrator.
Rupert stories settled down into a 3-stage format – the pictures alone for very young children, with a headline above to be used by parents reading aloud: rhyming couplets below each picture for younger readers; and a proper prose storyline for older ones. In the newspaper strips there were normally 2 illustrations in each issue, while in the annuals it was 4 illustrations per page. Mostly the pictures were in square format. Rupert appeared in every frame of each story. In 2001 the Daily Express was sold to new owners; after this there were no new Rupert stories, but re-runs of earlier stories which the more recent artists re-drew.
There are two original Rupert pages in the Cartoon Museum’s collection. The earliest, by Tourtel, dates from 1921 and shows Rupert, Bill Badger, a fairy and a rabbit, as seen in the featured image of this post. As there is no caption it is hard to make out what Rupert and his friends are doing. This piece is part of the Daily Funnies: An Exhibition of Strip Cartoons which will end on the 24th of December, 2017.
The second illustration shows the same 2 pictures twice; just a black and white outline at the top (apart from a few pale blue blocks of colour which would not show up in colour reproductions) and full coloured pictures at the bottom. This picture is the work of John Harrold and dates from 1993. The story title is “Rupert and the Noisy Firework” and the page title “Rupert meets Horace Hedgehog”; although the pictures include the Professor, Mr and Mrs Bear, Bill Badger and Rupert, there are no fireworks or hedgehogs on view. This original artwork is usually on display at the Comics Gallery.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bott, Caroline. 2003. The life and works of Alfred Bestall. London: Bloomsbury.
Clark, Alan. 1998. Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors. London: The British Library.
Perry, George and Afred Bestall. 1991. A bear’s life. London: Pavilion Books.
“The Followers of Rupert Bear.” Official Rupert Bear Society Website. Accessed 09/12/2017.
“The History Behind Rupert Bear.” 2006. h2g2 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition. Accessed 30/11/2017.
“Rupert Bear.” Wikipedia. Accessed 01/12/2017.
Brooks, David. “Rupert Little Bear Library.” David’s Homepage. Accessed 1/12/2017.
YouTube has Rupert Bear animation episodes as well! We have chosen a Christmas Adventure to share.