Alfred Edmeades Bestall was a British children’s book illustrator. He wrote and illustrated ‘Rupert Bear’ for 30 years and his work is regarded as the definitive incarnation of Rupert.
Bestall was born in 1892 in Mandalay, Myanmar (formerly Burma). At the time, Burma was under British rule. It was common for families living in the empire to send their children to be schooled at home. As such, Bestall went to a public school in North Wales.
He was destined for the civil service but persuaded his father to let him study art. Bestall won a scholarship to the Birmingham Central School of Art and later moved to London to attend the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Camden.
He had just begun to sell his cartoons when the First World War broke out. Bestall, considered too frail to serve, repeatedly applied at the local recruiting office until he was eventually sent into medical transport. In 1915, the 23-year-old served in the British Army in Flanders, Belgium, where he transported troops in red double-decker buses.
Following the war, Bestall returned to London to finish his studies at the Central School of Art. He had hopes of drawing for Punch magazine, but it was not until the early 1920s that he finally achieved it. Bestall also illustrated for Enid Blyton, The Passing Show Magazine, The Amalgamated Press, Tatler and over 50 books.
In 1935, Bestall was picked to be the new writer and illustrator for the Daily Express’s Rupert Bear stories. Rupert Bear was created for the Express by Mary Tourtel in 1920 to compete with The Daily Mail’s popular comic strip ‘Teddy Tail.’ Tourtel developed Rupert stories for 15 years up until her failing eyesight and health forced her to retire in 1935.
Tourtel’s work was criticised for being stiff. Bestall described it as “a little flat-footed.” When he succeeded her as the writer and illustrator, he rendered Rupert white (except on annual’s cover), more boyish and less bearish. He crafted beautiful environments for Rupert and his chums to explore. Bestall improved the stories by making Rupert more proactive and convivial.
Bestall worked on Rupert Bear for over a decade without ever signing his name so children would think Tourtel was still the artist. His signature first showed up in 1948, after Mary Tourtel died.
During the height of Rupert’s publication, the annual sold 1.5 million copies. Bestall would complete three pictures and a caption in a day. The Express piled on the work until it became too much. In 1965, ordered by his doctor, Bestall resigned. His last Rupert story was published on 22 July 1965 but he continued drawing the annual covers until 1973.
“It’s the old story, if a drawing looks all right, people won’t believe it takes any trouble at all […] It’s not like that, I’m afraid.”— Alfred Bestall, The Rupert Bear Story: A Tribute to Alfred Bestall, 1982
In 1985, as recognition of his achievements, Bestall was honoured by Queen Elizabeth II, who appointed him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). A year later, on 15 January 1986, Bestall died aged 93.
Bestall’s work gripped the hearts of children for over three decades, forging fond memories and life-long fans. His illustrations were carefully considered, masterful executed and never showed signs of laziness. His writing has been compared to Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne, and his drawing to E. H. Shepard, yet his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath. Bestall’s contributions to children’s literature should be remembered and admired.
You can find more information on Alfred Bestall in the book The Life and Works of Alfred Bestall: Illustrator of Rupert Bear. Also, I strongly recommend watching The Rupert Bear Story: A Tribute to Alfred Bestall. It was directed by Terry Jones (of Monty Python) and originally aired on Channel 4, on 9 December 1982. It is insightful and includes a rare interview with Bestall.