Stuart Trotter: The Man Who Took on Rupert Bear
PUBLISHED: 00:23 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
Stuart Trotter carries a huge responsibility. Not only does he have to keep thousands of children happy but he also has to live up to the exceedingly high expectations of the Rupert Bear Fan Club.
The years of my childhood were marked by Rupert Bear. Every year from about the age of five I received a new Rupert Bear Annual. I have one in front of me now from 1969 (yes, I've kept them!) and as I flick through the pages many of my childhood reading memories come flooding back. There's the story about Rupert and the Whistlefish in which Rupert and Sailor Sam are transported to a far-off Royal Kingdom filled with terrible noise until the Whistlefish is returned to its rightful place. There's the mischievous Raggety a naughty woodland creature who has the Spring Imps in a spin. Rupert's friends Bill the Badger, Algie Pug and Pong Ping make their appearance along with Constable Growler. Rupert's parents were reassuringly solid and politically incorrect. Mr Bear in tweed suit spent his time (as 1960s dads did) reading his paper and smoking his pipe in a comfy armchair while Mrs Bear, in her blue gingham apron, bustled around the house.
The thing with Rupert - and the reason children loved him - was that despite his ordinary existence some very extraordinary things happened to him.
"It wasn't all sweetness and light," says Stuart Trotter, Rupert's new illustrator. "Nutwood was a very dangerous place - there was magic and imps, and a lot of very dark characters lurking around."
Yes, it was a dangerous place - and that's why children loved the little bear and his adventures. They escaped into a world where good always overcame evil and everyone was home in time for tea - or at least in time for bedtime cocoa. And the grown-ups never believed the adventurers. For Mrs Bear always thought Rupert was making things up, as she tells Sailor Sam at the end of the Whistlefish story: "Now, now Mr Sam," she says. "I always knew that sailors were given to telling fairy stories, but you really shouldn't get my Rupert to back you up in them!"
Rupert is only two years shy of his 90th birthday. He's six years older than Winnie-the Pooh and eight years ahead of the young whippersnapper Mickey Mouse. Rupert is the OAP of the children's comic characters and he's still a popular lad. The cartoon still runs in The Daily Express (although the strips that appear today are re-prints of old cartoons) and sales of the annual are very respectable at over 50,000 a year in this country.
This year's annual is Stuart Trotter's first. He follows in hallowed footsteps. The late great Alfred Bestall is probably Rupert's best-known (and loved) illustrator. He had the job from 1935 to 1965 and drew over 270 of the Rupert bear strips. He was awarded an MBE in 1985. Unfortunately he was too unwell to collect his MBE and Prince Charles wrote to him on his 93rd birthday: "I have heard that you were sadly unable to receive your MBE from the Queen recently. I wanted to send you my congratulations on your award and to wish you a very happy birthday with many happy returns. As a child I well remember your marvellous illustrations of Rupert Bear."
Taking on Rupert was always going to be a hard act to follow as Stuart Trotter admits. "When I took on the job Egmont, who are the publishers, invited me to go to the annual fan club convention at Warwick Castle. I took along some samples of art work that I'd done and it seemed to be very well received."
Encouraged by that Stuart produced the annual - 68 pages of drawings plus endpages and covers. At the next Fan Club Convention Stuart was again invited to show his work to the fans. Was it scary?
"Tell me about it! It was one of the scariest things I've ever done," he says. "I was so worried about it the week before. I didn't know what reception I would get. They might hate it. I lost a lot of sleep."
And no wonder. The Rupert Bear Fan Club doesn't like it when their bear gets 'made over' as reactions to a 'younger, cuddlier' Rupert designed for pre-school children revealed. When 'cuddly' Rupert was shown to the Rupert Bear convention there was a 'sharp intake of breath'. Steady on fans! (My personal reaction was 'Yuck!' to me cuddly Rupert Bear looks like some mutant from cartoonland that hasn't quite been finished- needless to say we don't have permission to publish the picture here but you can see it at rupertbear.com).
The 'classic' Rupert fans were treated to an early peek of Stuart's front cover at this year's annual get-together - Rupert in trademark red pullover and yellow and black scarf holding an orange ice-lolly. There was applause from the fans and intense relief for Stuart.
As only the fourth regular illustrator in the whole history of the books how did Stuart Trotter get the job?
Needless to say he's been a fan from childhood. Brought up in the Alfred Bestall era he declares they are his favourites (although he admits to great admiration for John Harrold who had the job for 20 years from the mid-1990s).
Stuart is from a mining village in County Durham. His father worked for the National Coal Board while his mother was a housewife. He doesn't remember a time when he wasn't drawing. "I always had a pencil in my hand ...always drawing."
He trained in graphic design at Coventry University - or Poly as it was then - and quickly discovered that illustrating was his forte. His first major children's book was as illustrator on Portland Bill in the early 80s.
"After that the majority of my work has been in children's book publishing."
He's had some plum jobs. He illustrated the Animals of Farthing Wood, written by Colin Dann, he's done some Enid Blyton covers, Postman Pat, Read with Me Ladybird Books, even Winnie-the-Pooh. Surely not Winnie-the-Pooh? After all only the great E.H. Shepard can lay claim to being the illustrator for the great Pooh?
In fact, Stuart is one of many Winnie-the-Pooh illustrators. "I went on a Disney course in London to learn how to draw Pooh in the Disney-accepted way," he confides. "There's loads of us all over the world in Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York, Europe. We are accredited Disney artists, approved by Disney to draw Winnie-the-Pooh."
Rupert came about when he was doing some work for Simon & Schuster around five years ago and was asked to do some Rupert Bear samples. "Nothing came of it so I put them away. Then Egmont got the Rupert Bear contract. I was already working for them on other projects so I got the Rupert samples out and sent them in..."
The rest, as they say, is history. But it's not going the change Stuart's life. He lives in the village of Marton near Rugby with his wife Vicki, deputy head at Bawnmore Infant School, who he met at Coventry Poly. "Now that's what I call a hard job. Keeping a classroom of five years olds entertained all day ...I couldn't do it," says Stuart. The Trotter children have left home. Son Edward, 20, is studying philosophy at Sheffield and is in a band called Coin Operated Boy. Daughter Lily, 23, is a designer for the Oxford University Press. Stuart tells me that he spends all day, every day, drawing and painting. That's when he's not nipping out to the woods with Tilly the family dog.
A big development was setting up Rockpool Children's Books to publish, first, his own work and now those of other artists and writers. When we met he was preparing for the Frankfurt Book Fair - one of the biggest book publishing events in the world. "I have to be there," he says. "If you're not at Frankfurt, you're not visible and people forget you." It's through Frankfurt that Stuart has signed publishing deals to syndicate his work abroad and he's now published in Australia, the USA, Korea and Italy.
Despite his globetrotting Stuart is still happiest at home in the Warwickshire countryside. "I love Marton the wonderful countryside and walks. To Eathorpe and Wappenbury; over the top, great views, to the Friendly Inn in Frankton; the disused Leamington Spa to Rugby railway line south of Marton. Beautiful. And I do like Warwick Castle, great memories from when our children were young and not so young."
But it's not all beautiful in the world of Stuart Trotter. There is one building he is itching to demolish. "The chimney at Cemex in Long Itchington. If that went the views from Barratts Hill in Marton would be of untarnished rural Warwickshire countryside for virtually 360 degrees."
Of course no cement chimneys would ever be allowed to encroach on the world of Nutwood and Rupert Bear - and that's just how the fans, this one included, like it.