Alfred Bestall and the enduring life of Rupert - Garry Parsons

Alfred Bestall's illustrations for Rupert Bear have had a huge influence on my work as an illustrator and this blog post is a little visual celebration to honour his work.


Rupert Bear was originally created for The Daily Express in 1920 by Mary Tourtel, an established artist and children's book illustrator. Mary's husband, Herbert Tourtel was a news editor at the paper. 

At that time, The Express needed a comic strip character that could rival the Daily Mail's popular 'Teddy Tail'  strip series for children, and so Herbert turned to his wife to create one. The early Rupert strips were written by Herbert and drawn by Mary, as two cartoons each day and often in rhyme. 

Mary stopped drawing Rupert in 1935 when her eyesight deteriorated and Alfred Bestall was selected to take over. Mary's last published cartoon was Rupert and Bill's Seaside Holiday, appearing in the paper on June 27th and Alfred Bestall's first strip, Rupert, Algy and the Smugglers ran the next day. Unlike Mary, who relied on her husband for the words, Alfred agreed to take on Rupert on his own.  This became a life long dedication, though incredibly, Bestall didn't sign his work for the first 12 years out of respect for Mary
until her death in 1948.

Bestall had studied at the Central School of Art in London and was an accomplished artist, exhibiting pictures in the Royal Academy and forging a career as a commercial artist making regular illustrated contributions to Punch and Tatler before taking on Rupert as a way to secure more regular work. 


He also served in World War 1 as a motor transport driver in the British Army where he transported troops and ammunition, often under enemy fire.


Bestall developed the classic Rupert story format: the story is told in
picture form (generally two panels each day in the newspaper and four
panels to a page in the annuals), in simple page-headers, in rhyming
two-line-per-image verse, and as running prose at the foot. Rupert
Annuals can therefore be "read" on four levels. 


Alfred retired from drawing the Daily Express strips in 1965 at the age
of 73 creating 273 Rupert stories in all. He continued to draw for the Annuals until 1983.


I adored the Rupert books as a child and
like many children, I was given a Rupert annual as a Christmas present each

I would practice my signature a few times
before I scrawled my name inside and then I’d read them cover to cover. I loved
the illustrations and the myriad of characters and that you were given the
choice of how you read the stories but even then I'd often skip the reading altogether and make up my own narrative from the illustrations.

One of the most absorbing parts about the
books for
me then, as now, is getting lost in the end papers.

If you are interested in Alfred Bestall's life and work, read Caroline G. Bott's 'The
Life and Works of Alfred Bestall' (Bloomsbury, London, 2003). For a shorter read online, try Lambiek Comiclopedia here.


Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books. You can find him here and follow him @icandrawdinos on instagram and twitter.


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