Once upon a time, Michael Bond was doing some last-minute shopping in Oxford Street when it started to snow. Seeking shelter, he found himself in the toy department of Selfridges. Sitting on a shelf was a very lonely, small bear. Michael thought to himself, “I can’t leave him there all over Christmas,” purchased the bear and took him home. Michael named the bear Paddington after the nearest railway station to his house.
A few weeks later, Michael sat at his typewriter, waiting for inspiration to strike, when he looked up to see the little bear sitting on the mantelpiece. Remembering the moment he found the bear, Michael wondered, “what would happen if a real bear landed up on Paddington station.” So, he began to write.
Until 31st October 2021, the British Library is hosting “a small but perfectly formed exhibition celebrating everyone’s favourite bear.” For more than 60 years, Paddington Bear has entertained children (and adults) all over the world. The exhibition provides fun activities for younger visitors, whilst older visitors take a trip down memory lane and rediscover the many faces of Paddington that they have come to know and love.
Michael Bond (1926-2017) started writing about Paddington Bear while working as a BBC television cameraman on the children’s television show Blue Peter. When not at work, Bond sat at his typewriter, writing about an anthropomorphised bear from “darkest Peru” with a fondness for marmalade sandwiches. Unsure whether anyone would publish his story, Bond entrusted his manuscript to his agent at the BBC, Harvey Unna (1911-2003). While at work a few days later, Bond received a phone call from Barbara Ker Wilson (1929-2020) at Collins publishing company. She told Bond she read the entire story in one sitting and enjoyed the simple style and “endearing central character”.
Barbara Ker Wilson suggested Peggy Fortnum (1919-2016) as the illustrator for Bond’s children’s book. Her pen-and-ink drawings captured Paddington’s charm and worked perfectly with the storyline. On 13th October 1958, A Bear Called Paddington went on sale. It proved extremely popular and sold out by Christmas.
Paddington Bear is a friendly, polite bear from Peru, where he lived with his Aunt Lucy. Before he travelled to England, Paddington’s name was Pastuso, the same name as his uncle. Sadly, his uncle passed away, and it was time for Aunt Lucy to move into the Home for Retired Bears in Lima. So, Paddington set off with his hat on his head, his suitcase in hand, and a label around his neck that said, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
Bond’s idea for Paddington’s travelling attire was inspired by his memories of the children evacuated during World War II. They all wore labels around their necks and carried their possessions in small suitcases.
After travelling as a stowaway on a lifeboat and eating copious amounts of marmalade, the little bear arrived at Paddington Station, where the first story begins. Paddington is found on the platform by the Brown family, who, after hearing his story, take him home to 32 Windsor Gardens near Notting Hill. The Brown’s find Pastuso difficult to pronounce, so name the bear Paddington, after the train station.
Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations for the Paddington books were black and white, although other artists added colour later. During the 1990s, R. W. Alley produced coloured drawings for new editions of the books. Alley’s style is similar to Fortnum’s, and he made sure Paddington was still recognisable in his blue duffle coat and hat.
Alley depicted Mr Henry Brown as a kind-looking ageing man with glasses and a moustache. According to the story, he is a hapless but well-meaning City of London Risk Analyst. He gladly welcomed the curious little bear into his home, as did his wife, Mary. Mrs Brown is more seriously-minded than her husband, but still just as friendly. Michael Bond based Mr and Mrs Brown on his parents. His father was an anxious man, whereas his mother was more impulsive.
The Brown children, Judy and Jonathan, were thrilled to welcome Paddington to the family. The Browns were meeting Judy off the train from boarding school at Paddington Station when they found the bear.
During the 1960s and 70s, children’s television shows, such as Jackanory, serialised readings of the stories. In 1976, the BBC asked Bond to write a television series about Paddington. Bond based the storylines on some of the comedic incidents from the books. The series was animated by Anglo-French stop-motion director Ivor Wood (1932-2004), who also worked on The Magic Roundabout, The Wombles and Postman Pat.
For the series, Wood suggested creating a puppet of Paddington, including his hat, duffle coat, label and suitcase. Stop-motion animation is created by taking a series of photographs showing the characters in slightly different positions. When the shots are shown rapidly, one after the other, the characters appear as though moving. Since stop-motion is a lengthy, time-consuming process, Wood proposed the rest of the characters and background scenery should be two-dimensional drawings. Only Paddington and the things he touches were three-dimensional, for instance, when Mr Brown handed Paddington a 2D jar of marmalade, it became 3D when Paddington touched it.
As well as the Brown family, there are many characters in the Paddington stories. Most people Paddington met were very welcoming, but others needed reminding to be kind with a hard stare. Paddington received a mixed reception from the Brown’s housekeeper, Mrs Bird. Whilst she was often strict and got annoyed with Paddington’s mishaps, she also gave him good advice and protected him from harm. Bond based Mrs Bird on Mrs Hudson from the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Paddington made many friends in the local community, particularly the market stallholders in Portobello Road. Mrs Bird often sent Paddington to buy fruit and vegetables from the traders. The road is also famous for its antique stalls and the location of the shop belonging to the fictional antique dealer, Mr Samuel Gruber.
Mr Gruber was a polite Hungarian immigrant who often called Paddington “Mr Brown”. He understood how Paddington felt about finding himself in a strange country and soon became Paddington’s best friend. Bond wanted Paddington to have a friend with whom he could relate and, despite the age difference, Mr Gruber fit the bill. Most mornings, Paddington visited Mr Gruber for “elevenses”, and they occasionally took trips around London and beyond to see the sights.
In some of the later stories, readers learn more about Paddington’s Aunt Lucy. She looked after him when his parents died in an earthquake, taught him English and told him all about England. In 1978, Gabrielle Designs, the company granted the first licence to manufacture a Paddington Bear soft toy, produced a toy version of Aunt Lucy. She has a similar hat to Paddington but wears clothing more suited to Peruvian culture.
Paddington told the Browns about Aunt Lucy in the very first story. When he arrived at 32 Windsor Gardens, he wrote to Lucy to tell her he had arrived safely in England. He also told her his new name, which Lucy said she liked in her response. Paddington and Lucy often kept each other informed through letters and postcards. These were published in the book Love from Paddington in 2014, containing illustrations by both Fortnum and Alley.
Paddington tried to be nice to everyone and never wished to upset anyone. Unfortunately, there is one character that always refused to be friendly. This was Mr Reginald Curry, the Brown’s bad-tempered neighbour. He is described as a nosy, arrogant, penny-pinching man who often ordered Paddington to run errands for him. Rather than call Paddington by name, Mr Curry rudely called him “Bear”. Mr Curry frequently received his comeuppance as the victim of Paddington’s misadventures.
The bear Michael Bond purchased in 1956 was remarkably small in comparison to be bear depicted in the Paddington Books. Even the version made by Gabrielle Designs is more than double the size of Bond’s bear. The toy wears bright red wellington boots, which have since become synonymous with Paddington. In the books, Paddington was usually barefoot, only wearing boots in the snow.
When the Browns first met Paddington, all he wore was a “funny kind of hat” and a label round his neck. Paddington told them the hat belonged to his uncle in Peru, who passed away before the story began. Paddington often kept an emergency marmalade sandwich under the hat.
It is difficult to imagine Paddington without his blue duffle coat, but he did not arrive in London wearing one. The next day, Mrs Brown took Paddington on a shopping expedition, where she bought him a blue duffle coat with a red lining. Bond based his description of the coat on one he used to wear.
As of 2021, over thirty official Paddington books have been released. Michael Bond finished the final book, Paddington at St. Paul’s, shortly before his death in 2017. It was officially released on 27th June 2018 to mark the anniversary of the day that Michael Bond died and the 60th anniversary of A Bear Called Paddington. Throughout these books, Paddington had many adventures and mishaps, learned new things, and, most importantly, had fun. Several artists have taken on the job of illustrating the books, but they all try to replicate Peggy Fortnum’s original Paddington.
David Mckee (b.1935), the author and illustrator of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, produced illustrations for a few of the Paddington books, including the story Paddington’s Busy Day (1987). Whilst the illustration style is different to Fortnum’s drawings, Paddington is recognisable in his hat, duffle coat and wellington boots. One artwork on display at the British Library shows Paddington’s attempt at cleaning the loft. Things did not go to plan, and Paddington put his foot through a loose floorboard, losing all his marmalade sandwiches in the process.
In 1971, Kazimierz Piotrowski translated some of the Paddington books into Polish. Jan Marcin Szancer (1902-73), a well-known children’s illustrator in Poland, provided the illustrations for these versions. Paddington looks quite different without his blue coat, but he still wears a hat, albeit yellow. The drawing style is unlike the English pen and ink versions, yet the story remains the same. The illustration on the Polish version of the first Paddington book represents chapter five, Paddington and “The Old Master”. In this story, Paddington cleaned one of the Browns’ paintings to see if an older one was hiding beneath it. There was not, but by “cleaning” the canvas, Paddington created a new painting, which went on to win a competition.
During the 1970s, the versatile draughtsman Fred Banbery (1913-99) worked alongside Bond to produce picture book versions of the Paddington books for younger children. Whilst the original books contained illustrations, they did not class as picture books. Banbery’s artwork covered the entire page, leaving space for the simplified text written by Bond. These books became known collectively as the “Young Set”.
As part of the exhibition, screens played clips from a couple of films and television shows based on Paddington Bear. Following the success of the 1976 stop-motion series, Hanna-Barbera Productions produced an animated cartoon version, which first aired in 1989. The stories are based on the books but with the extra character David, Judy and Jonathan’s American cousin. In 1997, a Canadian company released an alternative cartoon series called The Adventures of Paddington Bear.
In 2019, StudioCanal and Heyday Films released a three-dimensional computer-generated cartoon of The Adventures of Paddington. So far, two series have aired on Nickelodeon, and a third is in development. The series brings Paddington into the 21st century with up-to-date technology. Older fans may dislike the contemporary twist, but it is successfully introducing the beloved bear to younger generations. This year, the series won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Pre-School Children’s Animated Series. Paddington Bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw (b.1980), and the theme music is written and performed by Gary Barlow (b.1971).
Ben Whishaw is also the voice of Paddington in the recent Warner Bros. film adaptations, Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017). Originally, Colin Firth (b.1960) was announced as the voice of Paddington, but the actor did not think his voice was right for the role. Many well-known actors starred in the films, including Julie Walters (Mrs Bird), Jim Broadbent (Mr Gruber) and Peter Capaldi (Mr Curry). Hugh Bonneville (b.1963) starred as Mr Brown, whose personality differed from the books. Instead of welcoming Paddington, Mr Brown initially refuses to let Paddington move in with his family. A third film is expected to release in 2023.
Paddington Bear has not lost his appeal since he first appeared sixty years ago. Michael Bond’s books are still read and sold across the world, and millions of people have watched the films and television shows. Paddington also crops up in other areas of popular culture, away from the pages and screens. In 2006, Royal Mail released Paddington Bear 1st class stamps as part of their Animal Tales series. Paddington has also appeared on the labels of Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade. In 2017, to coincide with the release of Paddington 2, Marks & Spencer featured Paddington in their Christmas television advert, in which Paddington mistook a thief for Father Christmas.
Paddington’s most recent endeavour is partnering with UNICEF to help build a world where every child is happy, healthy and safe. For £8 a month, children in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand can receive regular postcards from Paddington telling them about his adventures in foreign countries and the children who live there. The money spent on subscriptions goes directly to UNICEF and the children they support.
When Michael Bond sat down at his typewriter and tapped out the first words of A Bear Called Paddington, he had no idea Paddington would become a worldwide sensation. In 1997, Bond was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 2015, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to children’s literature. As well as Paddington, Bond wrote about the adventures of a guinea pig named Olga da Polga and created the children’s television series The Herbs (1968) and The Adventures of Parsley (1970).
Several items in the British Museum’s exhibition are on loan from Karen Jankel, Michael Bond’s daughter. Jankel helped Bond write the book Paddington Goes to Hospital (2000), aimed at reassuring children about overnight stays in hospitals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Jankel spoke out saying, “We’re all going through the most terrible trauma at the moment and I think if everybody could be more like Paddington we will probably come through a bit more unscathed.” Those familiar with the Paddington stories will likewise agree.
The British Library wished to create a trip down memory lane whilst also appealing to the younger generation. They succeeded in both aims and proved that Paddington is one of the world’s most-loved fictional bears. The exhibition also introduced the author, who for many years has been little more than a name. It is often easy to forget that authors are “normal” people with lives of their own. Although Bond passed away a few years ago, Paddington will continue to delight young and old readers for many years to come.
Paddington: The Story of a Bear is open until Sunday 31st October 2021. Tickets cost £8 for adults and £3 for children age 12-17. Children aged 11 or younger may visit for free. The British Library recommends pre-booking tickets.