Friday, 17 June 2011

What is heavy, white, and wears yellow check trousers? Rupert the Fridge.

The story of the 1973 Daily Express Rupert the Bear Annual is a strange one, but will, I am sure, be a familar tale to illustrators and designers the world over.

The artist, Alfred Bestall, provided his finished artwork to the publisher as usual. And, as usual, the cover illustration featured Rupert with a brown face and hands (Paws?), while the cartoon strips within all showed a white rupert. This was the way that Bestall designed the cover artwork, and he was the artist so that's the way it was printed.

Bestall had been drawing Rupert since Mary Tourtell's death in 1935 and produced all the artwork for the popular annuals from the first issue in 1936 until 1965. From then on he still produced the colour artwork for the covers each year while the story strips inside were produced by Freddie Chaplain.

Readers often wrote to the Publishers office asking why Rupert changed colour for the cover artwork. Bestall's main reason appears to be that he liked the extra possibilites it gave him for tone and colouring in the cover painting as a whole. This seemed to satisfy the Publishers for a number of years until the print run of 1973 was being prepared.

A few copies, thought to be only a dozen or so, were printed with the artwork that Bestall had provided. These are effectively proof copies of the annual. However, after a boozy pub lunch the Publisher, Editor and Printer took the decision to change Rupert from a brown to a white bear. Why they did it this particular year is unknown. Letters about the colour difference had been written for years and not acted upon. Maybe it was a sign of the times. On British television in the early seventies (I am just old enough to remember) it seemed everyone was blacking up, from Spike Milligan's obsession with playing Indians and Pakistanis, to the Black and white Minstrel show and It Ain't 'alf Hot, Mum. Maybe the Publisher was just joining in with this bizarre trend, albeit changing the colours the other way around. Whatever the reason the Bear on the cover was changed to white for the enormous print run, without Alfred Bestall's approval.

When Bestall found out he was horrified. His brown bear had light and shade and fitted in well with the light sky in the background. The white Rupert blended with the background and suddenly had no tone. He vowed to never supply any artwork for the Publishers again and wanted nothing to do with the white bear annual. In a move designed to appease him, his signature on the back cover was darkened to try and disguise it, but Bestall kept his word and the 1973 annual is the last to feature one of his wonderful illustrations on the cover.

Since 1973 these Brown Faced Rupert Proof annuals have been sought after by collectors, mostly without success.
Occasionally copies do turn up, including the unusual occurance of two copies being offered in the same auction sale by Duke's of Dorchester back in October 2007. These copies were in the collection of Rupert writer Freddie Chaplain and sold for record prices of £26,290 and £27,485 including the buyer's premium.

I currently have a unique copy of the rare Brown faced Rupert Annual for sale.

It is in fine condition and has not appeared on the market before, having been safely housed in the same collection since 1974.
What makes my copy unique is that it has been signed by Alfred Bestall on the title page.

When the Life-long Rupert fan and collector, who I got this volume from, visited Bestall in 1974 he asked the story of the famous 1973 annual. After telling him his side of the story Bestall took down a copy from the bookshelf and signed it, commenting as he did that he had given copies of this rare book to other fans and collectors but had not signed any other copy.

Many artists and illustrators know the frustration of Editors and Publishers making changes to their artwork, sometimes with and sometimes without their knowledge and blessing. This rare annual is part of the story of one of the most famous design changes in childrens book production.