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Rupert Bear 1920-2020: How Canterbury's Mary Tourtel created an iconic character 100 years on

One hundred years ago, some of the UK's biggest national newspapers became locked in a new war to boost their circulation figures - and a young female artist from Kent was to emerge the unlikely victor.

For Mary Tourtel created Rupert Bear; whose simple charms have entranced generations of children and adults alike ever since.

Rupert appears with brown fur on the cover of his annuals - but is white-faced inside
Rupert appears with brown fur on the cover of his annuals - but is white-faced inside

Back in an era where television was still more than a decade away, the internet an unimaginable concept, and films were still silent and shown with an orchestral accompaniment, the humble comic strip was both an emerging form of entertainment and key tool in driving up newspaper sales.

It was the Daily Mail which first stumbled upon its power when it produced the UK's first daily strip in the guise of Teddy Tail - a mouse whose adventures first appeared in 1915.

Typically, as its success grew, so others looked to come up with their own creations.

The Daily Mirror unleashed Pip, Squeak and Wilfred - a dog, penguin and rabbit - and the Daily Express were keen to join in.

Explains John Beck, secretary of the Followers of Rupert Bear, the official society devoted to the little hero from the fictional village of Nutwood and his chums: "The Daily Express was late in catching up and the other characters had been around for a little while.

Mary Tourtel created Rupert in 1920
Mary Tourtel created Rupert in 1920

"I think it took some time for the Express to catch on there was mileage on having a woman's page in the paper and if they introduced a cartoon character for mothers to read to their children then that would attract the women and influence the men who bought the papers."

So sub-editor Herbert Tourtel was tasked with finding their own original creation in a bid to win over parents keen to give their children something to enjoy.

And he didn't have to look very far.

His wife, Mary, was already a talented, and published, illustrator.

The pair had tied the knot in 1900, at Stoke Poges Church near Eton, when Mary was 22. They would go on to travel the world, extensively, visiting the likes of Italy, Egypt and India - fuelled by her fascination with aviation.

A photo which under the hammer at the Canterbury Auction Galleries in 2005 - Mary Tourtel is pictured far right
A photo which under the hammer at the Canterbury Auction Galleries in 2005 - Mary Tourtel is pictured far right

Born Mary Caldwell at 52 Palace Street in Canterbury art was in her blood.

Her father, Samuel, was a stone mason and stained-glass designer, while her brother, Edmund, was, according to research carried out by the Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society, a "talented painter of animals".

It adds: "She showed an early talent for drawing and studied at the Sidney Cooper School of Art in Canterbury where she won the Prince of Wales scholarship and also a holiday in Switzerland.

"Her speciality was animal drawing and she published a number of illustrations for children’s books in 1897."

In 1901, she published an illustrated collection of poems on horses called, simply enough, The Horse Book. Her 1904 book of Humpty Dumpty, released for the Christmas market, was, at the time, looking to capitalise on a move towards smaller books for children and, according to reports at the time, "will be the smallest children's book on the market, measuring three inches square".

Rupert has entranced readers for 100 years
Rupert has entranced readers for 100 years

But her endearing work would emerge from those discussions with her husband.

Quite how they evolved remains lost in the mists of time, but the concept of animal adventures with rhyming couplets was a tried and tested formula.

What emerged was The Little Lost Bear - drawn by Mary and with the words provided by Herbert.

In his first outing, appearing on the pages of the Daily Express on November 8, 1920. She would go to draw and write Rupert stories for 15 years.

Adds Rupert aficionado John Beck: "She was a very good artist in her own right, drawing anthropomorphic creatures and characters and she produced quite a number of books in the early part of the century - some 18-20 years before she started on Rupert.

Possessions of Mary Tourtel sold by the Canterbury Auction Galleries in 2005
Possessions of Mary Tourtel sold by the Canterbury Auction Galleries in 2005

"I don't know whether she was pushed by her husband to do it or not, but she produced about 70 stories for Rupert so she must have been reasonably enthused.

"The earlier stories are very much Grimms' fairy tales stuff - with knights and ogres and that sort of think which was obviously influenced by what Herbert Tourtel remembered from his youth."

And indeed Rupert in those early days, penned by his creator, proved to be very much a template for the character who would enjoy such a hey-day over subsequent years.

Adds John Beck: "Rupert started off as a chunky little bear in trousers and eventually he became more humanised; more like a small boy with a bear's head. That developed over a period of time as different artists took over."

While a Rupert annual would become a Christmas essential for generations of children over the decades that followed, during Mary Tourtel's period of penning the stories, readers were limited to rather more modest offerings.

The former Rupert Bear Museum in Canterbury - a display has since been moved to the Beaney arts venue
The former Rupert Bear Museum in Canterbury - a display has since been moved to the Beaney arts venue

Collections of Mary's stories were published during the 1920s and in the 1930s a string of four 'Monster Rupert' books were published.

But while she continued to pen the stories of her little bear, her life was turned upside down in 1931 when husband Herbert died.

Four years later, in 1935, at the age of 61, she decided to retire as both her health and eyesight began to deteriorate.

The responsibility was passed to Alfred Bestall - felt by many to be the man who guided Rupert into his hey-day with his artistic talent and, perhaps most significantly, his suggestion an annual compendium of Rupert's stories were published each year - in colour.

A plaque remembers Mary Tourtel who was born - and died - in Canterbury
A plaque remembers Mary Tourtel who was born - and died - in Canterbury

He adjusted Rupert sufficiently to appeal to a wider audience.

Adds John Beck: "Hardly any of the Tourtel stuff appeared in colour - I think she only ever painted about eight colour pictures of Rupert which appeared in the early books in the 1920s. Otherwise all her stuff was pen and ink, black and white."

Mary had given birth to Rupert and set him on his way - Bestall led the bear by the hand and into a new era.

The first Rupert annual emerged in 1936 and continues to this day.

Mary, meanwhile, had spent much of her life preferring to live in hotels - eventually returning to the place of her birth.

A plaque on the wall of the Chaucer Hotel details Mary Tourtel's time there near the end of her life
A plaque on the wall of the Chaucer Hotel details Mary Tourtel's time there near the end of her life

Staying in a hotel on Ivy Lane - now part of the Chaucer Hotel, in March of 1948, Mary collapsed on Canterbury High Street suffering from a brain tumour. She was taken to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital but died a week later, on March 15. She was 74.

She was buried alongside her husband at St Martin's Church in the city.

The couple had not had any children.

In her will, she left £21,621 - the equivalent today of more than £850,000.

Although experts suspect Rupert's success had little to do with the fortune she left behind.

Former Rupert illustrator John Harrold
Former Rupert illustrator John Harrold

"I think her wealth would have come from her husband who had died before her," explains John Beck.

"I don't think she was a great spender of money. She spent most of her time in hotel accommodation, finally ending up living back in Canterbury.

"I don't think Rupert made her particularly rich.

"The Express was never over generous when it came to paying for Rupert stories."

Bestall drew and wrote the Rupert stories for 30 years, John Harrold eventually taking over in the mid-1970s as the regular writer and artist and, in 2008, passing over to Stuart Trotter.

Former illustrator John Harrold during a visit to Canterbury to sign annuals
Former illustrator John Harrold during a visit to Canterbury to sign annuals

Rupert continues to appear daily in the Express, but for the last 20 years or so they have been repeats of classics from decades gone by.

Adds Beck: "They reproduce stories from the annuals of the past and in many ways that's not a bad thing as they were Rupert's hey-day."

In Canterbury, Rupert's legacy lives on with a display at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge - Tourtel's creation continuing to attract visitors.

The Followers of Rupert Bear number close to 1,000 still today - dedicated to the classic annuals rather than the TV spin-offs.

Past presidents have included Alfred Bestall and Monty Python's Terry Jones. Honorary members include Paul McCartney who embraced Rupert for his 1984 hit We All Stand Together with the Frog Chorus.

The grave of both Mary and her husband Herbert at St Martin's Church
The grave of both Mary and her husband Herbert at St Martin's Church

"Rupert's stories were always - particularly through Bestall - charming," says the society's secretary.

"It always had a subtle suspense which always made you want to see what was going on next.

"There was the timelessness and peace of the life that he led. He set off in the morning, to do some shopping for his mum or play with his chums, and he was always home in time for tea to tell his mother about the adventures he had had.

"It was comforting to children. I don't think Pip, Squeak and Wilfred or Teddy Tail had that sort of charm."

Nor anything like the longevity.

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