Monday, 24 February 2014

Alfred Bestall - an appreciation remixed by Uranus Azpiles

When commenting on Alfred Bestall, the universally accepted all-time greatest illustrator of Rupert the bear, it would be churlish not to mention Rupert’s creator Mary Tourtel, after all without that fine lady there would be no to article to write, or if there were it would be far shorter. Before proceeding it should be noted that this is not a biography, that would take reams to write, this is an appreciation.

Mary was born in 1874 in Canterbury, Kent. As the daughter of stained glass artist and stonemason she was destined to be creative. The comic strip she started for the Daily Express in 1920 was born of competitive needs. The Daily Mail and Daily Mirror had their children’s strips and the Mail wanted one too. Mary created a character called Little Brown Bear which evolved into Rupert in order to reduce the costs of inking. For fifteen years Mary wrote and drew Rupert the Bear then in 1935 Alfred Bestall took over the creative reins. It was a role he enjoyed for thirty years.

For a man who lived the autumn of his life in Nantgwynant, Wales. Bestall was in fact born Alfred Edmeades Bestall in Mandalay, Burma in 1892. He wasn’t educated there though but in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. Bestall was an accomplished student who went on to win a scholarship to the Birmingham Central School. He was also a boy after my own heart and was often caught and punished for drawing in his exercise books. It was his illustration of a mouse head caught in a trap that won him his place at Art College. His time there was fractured when he was called upon to serve in Flanders during the Great War where he transported troops in a red London bus. It wasn’t necessary to be barmy but being British was.

Returning to Blighty shortly after the war Bestall completed his studies and was hired by Enid Blyton to illustrate her books. This led to further commissions for book illustrations which eventually won him work for both Punch and Tatler magazines.

Influenced by the landscape he vacationed in after the war, Alfred Bestall produced some delightful images that transposed nicely into the Rupert books. Much of the work was whimsical but that wasn’t the only quality he evoked. There was an other-worldliness about the land Rupert’s tales took place in, a sense of it being very possible for bear headed boys along with their anthropomorphic friends to exist. Today’s world is filled with a desire to have stories both gritty and realistic making Bestall’s books seem dated by comparison. I find that rather sad as the modern way pays less attention to reality than it pretends while being equally escapist in its endeavors and far less captivating in its delivery.

His work on Rupert is quintessentially British. Not English but the epitome of all the magic imagined from these beautiful islands and condensed into one slightly whimsical work. The tones are soft; gentle as the breezes that waft in spring and summer, surreal but in  very reserved manner. I couldn't imagine this work, these stories coming from anywhere apart from Britain. Not an an aged Albion of centuries past though but a Great Britain of the fading empire via the days of the Edwardian era. Of course they were written and drawn long after that genteel time but the memory of those days, false no doubt, are manifest in them.

Rupert's world is an idyll. Nothing really bad ever happens there. The paintings of Alfred Bestall reflect this investing a childlike innocence into children's literature.

I often bemoan the modern trend toward 'grim realism.' This is not because I dislike things gritty, quite the reverse. What I dislike about that trend is that it goes too far in its depiction becoming equally as fanciful in its fiction as these tales of Rupert Bear were in reverse. The thing that Rupert has, and Bestall's work exemplifies, is a charm long forgotten. 

Whimsical maybe, slightly soft in the heart if not the head and very meek in narrative style, They remain very much a thing of a post war Britain licking its wounds and trying to remember a time before when being British was something. Something green and pleasant, fey and fanciful, gardens and roses and tea before supper time. And then the horrors of the Great War, like a can of worms once opened then needs a bigger can to get them back in gain, revealed another monster waiting. An equally nasty monster in the shape of Nazi Germany. In the face of that grand calamity who wouldn't want to hide in Nutwood?

It is for his work on Rupert the Bear that Alfred (Fred) Bestall will be remembered but also and perhaps even better would be the work he produced for Punch along with the double-page spreads he did in glorious water colour for Tatler and, of course, the two wonderful oil paintings which were hung in the Royal Academy that would take his own pride of place.


. aNOtHEr LuMp oF FUDgE fRoM tHe FUdgE mAKErS cAbInEt.

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