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“It’s not the right term for him, he’s more than that,” says current Rupert Annual illustrator Stuart Trotter. “He’s embedded himself in English literature. Just look at his revered fans.” Stuart, who succeeded John Harrold as Rupert artist in 2008, was one of the little bear’s fans growing up in Ferryhill, County Durham. “It was a coal mining town and everything was very black and white, including the TV and newspapers,” he says. “Then on Christmas Day I got my first Rupert annual and all the colours were amazing, as was this little boy who went on all these adventures. “I’ve liked him ever since. I can remember my mum reading the stories from the Daily Express to me.”
Fast forward to today and Stuart has the honour of being the official author and illustrator of Rupert’s centenary annual.
For the historic issue, he produced a new story and artwork for 56 panels, the front and back covers, plus additional smaller drawings inside.
Does the pressure of drawing this iconic bear ever weigh heavy on his shoulders? “It’s a huge challenge,” he admits.
“There is a lot of responsibility and I don’t look at what people say, but I do my best.”
New ideas are the toughest part of his job. “It’s hard to come up with something totally original any more as there have been so many stories now,” he admits.
There have been times when he has devised a storyline only to find out afterwards one of his predecessors has beaten him to it.
He has no cause for concern with Rupert And The Time Machine, a cracker of an idea that pays homage to the ursine hero’s creator, Mary Tourtel, for the 100th anniversary.
Without giving away too much, it sees her original 1920 brown bear transported to 2020 where he meets his modern-day equivalent.
Is that the first time we’ve seen two Ruperts in one story? “I hope so,” Stuart laughs nervously.
Rupert’s colour was famously changed from brown to white to save on printing costs and, aside from that, each of his artists has added their own subtle touches over the years.
Avid Rupert Bear fan Terry Jones, the late Monty Python star, loved the work of Alfred Bestall, who took over from original creator Mary Tourtel.
“He brought an easy naturalness of movement that shows a master of technique,” Terry said. “He also brought Rupert’s own expressions to life.”
Alfred also widened the cast of characters to Podgy Pig, Willie Mouse and PC Growler, to name a few.
Stuart adores Raggety the wood troll, who appeared in only one story from 1959 but left a lasting impression with many fans.
“He looks like a load of sticks stuck together with a jumper and a pair of shorts on,” he says. “He’s quite scary looking but very mischievous.”
John Harrold, who joined the Rupert team at the Daily Express in the 1970s, helped to interject surrealism into the artwork, assisted by Express journalist and Rupert storywriter James Henderson and then Rupert editor Ian Robinson.
Stuart rates John Harrold’s story, Rupert And The Missing Snow very highly. “There are some really nice drawings of him in there.”
He adds: “We all try to keep him as Mary Tourtel created him all those years ago. Back then he had a much bigger head and was more bear-like.”
Bestall is Stuart’s biggest source of inspiration. “I like his style of drawing as it’s a more loose, expressive style and is quite impressionistic,” he says.
“He really breathed life into Rupert so he climbs, jumps and runs, and does what every little boy does, whereas Mary’s bear was more traditional and formal.”
Stuart’s approach is to draw the outlines in pencil first before adding definition.
Only then does the black pen come out. Every new story takes four to five months to complete, while a cover can take two months.
“I’ll make sure I’ve got things in proportion and the scene looks nice,” he says. “Each panel has to stand out on its own. It’s not just a drawing, it’s a work of art.”
The extensive portfolio of characters he has drawn includes Postman Pat, Winnie-the-Pooh, Gromit from Wallace and Gromit, and Kipper the Dog, and he approaches Rupert in the same way.
“I know Rupert pretty well because I’ve been a fan all my life,” he explains.
“I’ve always followed the same pattern and that is to draw the characters’ heads first because if they are not right then the rest won’t be.
You can’t have a Rupert story where he doesn’t look like Rupert.”
Life has come full circle for this Durham resident, now back in the same house where he was born. It’s full of lovely memories.
“Fortunately the street I lived in jutted out into farmland so as kids we would roam about because you could in those days,” he says.
“Rupert’s world reflected the countryside around me where I lived.”
As a child, Stuart was always drawing, although in those days it was battleships rather than bears.
After studying graphic design at Lanchester Polytechnic, now Coventry University, he worked freelance and found his passion was really in illustration.
Spotting the Rupert Annuals vacancy in industry magazine,The Bookseller in 2006, he sent a drawing of one of Rupert’s chums leaping out at him in a typical Nutwood setting.
Two months later he was set to work on the 2008 Annual. “I’m happy to say that every story I’ve sent across has been approved, which is pretty good really,” he says.
Delving into Nutwood is never a chore. “It is the kind of world you would like to live in.
There are no complications there. Things do happen, people will get ill but then Dr Lion comes along and fixes them.
“There are none of the pressures of the modern world, there is no religion or any sort of complications that people have to put up with. It’s simple, and there is not a bad bone in Rupert’s body.”
Extraordinarily, he had a largely open brief when he got the job but has vowed never to modernise the little bear.
“He’s of his time, is Rupert,” Stuart says. “You wouldn’t introduce a new type of dragon to The Lord Of The Rings.”
His ideas can come to him at any time. “I came up with Rupert And The Bosun’s Chair when I walked around St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.”
This summer, Penzance station unveiled a new painting by Stuart after locals realised the story was set on the Mount. “It’s in a big wooden frame in the ticket office now,” he says. “At one end you’ve got Rupert and at the other you’ve got Paddington Bear.”
From time to time he sneaks in a new addition, such as the sea sprite in 2015’s Rupert And The Coral Crown and, two years earlier, a TV in Rupert and the Go-Kart Race.
“But it was an old-fashioned one with a tiny screen in the middle of a brown box,” he laughs.
The text and couplets are written by Mara Alperin, although the central storyline is his creation. Rupert And The Snowbird is his favourite story.
“I do like snowy stories and where he walks through snow or flies off to see Santa in his castle. They have all the elements I like – a bit of adventure, danger and helping somebody.”
He is thrilled Rupert has reached his centenary. “Rupert celebrating his 100th birthday is a remarkable achievement, as is the fact he’s never been out of print since 1920,” says Stuart.
“I don’t think there are any other characters you can say that about. It just proves how enduring he is and how popular.”
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