Fortnum breathed life into Paddington

NEW YORK • He was an orphaned immigrant from "darkest Peru" who took his name from the Central London railway station where he was rescued by an English couple named Mr and Mrs Brown.

They spotted him on the platform, sitting alone on an old leather suitcase and sporting an odd-looking hat and a handwritten label that implored, "Please look after this bear".

The bear sprang from the imagination of Michael Bond, a BBC cameraman who had bought a forsaken teddy bear in Selfridges, the London department store, on Christmas Eve in 1956 as an eleventh-hour gift for his wife. It inspired him to write A Bear Called Paddington, published in 1958.

But it fell to Peggy Fortnum, a British illustrator, to envision what this small, lonely bear would look like.

After photographing Malayan bears at the London Zoo, she depicted, in black and white with pen and ink, an endearingly frumpy refugee with a floppy hat and duffel coat - ignoring her London art tutor's advice that she never draw animals that talked and wore clothes.

The bear envisioned by British illustrator Peggy Fortnum had its own television series. PHOTO: STV12

The character - his coat became blue and his hat red - was soon immortalised, along with Winnie- the-Pooh, Little Bear and the Berenstain Bears, in the ursine literary pantheon.

Fortnum, who went on to illustrate a series of Paddington books until 1983, died on March 28 outside London. She was 96.

Years after the originals had been published, some of her drawings were coloured in by other artists, including a niece, Caroline Nuttal- Smith. Still later, other illustrators picked up the mantle. The latest book was published in 2014.

"He had to look real," Fortnum wrote of the bear in her unpublished memoirs. "People who saw him had to believe in him, just as they believe in Winnie-the-Pooh."

She added: "You see, I don't like whimsy or sentiment. This bear had character. I felt a real rapport with this brainless innocent who always came out on top."

Margaret Emily Noel Fortnum was born in London on Dec 23, 1919. Her father, Arthur, was a naval officer. Her mother, the former Mary Hay, was the daughter of a governor of Tobago.

Fortnum briefly attended Tunbridge Wells School of Art in 1939, but after witnessing the Nazi bombing of London in World War II, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women's branch of the British army.

During her service, she was injured when she fell out of a troop carrier and was run over by a truck. After recovering, she enrolled in the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.

There, she was taught by John Farleigh, a wood engraver who, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph, predicted a great future for her, with one caveat: "So long as you don't illustrate talking animals wearing clothes".

Her first commission came in 1944, for Mary F. Moore's Dorcas The Wooden Doll, the story of a toy that comes to life. She proceeded to illustrate more than 80 books, including Noel Streatfeild's Thursday's Child (1970) and Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon (1972).

Fortnum married the artist and sculptor Ralph Nuttall-Smith. He died in 1988. She is survived by two nephews, the sculptor John Fortnum and the film historian Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow said she had died of complications of dementia in a nursing home in Colchester, north-east of London.

Fortnum's illustrations drew praise from critics and authors alike. The Times Literary Supplement wrote: "Her line is exquisite in its loose and nervous rhythm; she can create movement with what, out of context, would be a meaningless squiggle; she can suggest by a few doodles a storm-clouded sky or the hidden recesses of a candlelit room."

Bond, who conceived Paddington, was quoted by The Telegraph as saying that her illustrations captured the bear's character completely.

He added: "Those sketchy drawings were of a living, breathing creature, with the spirit of Paddington about them: his incurable optimism, his gullibility."

Perhaps that was because Fortnum never doubted the bear's back- story. "I believed in Paddington. I believed he really existed," she wrote. "I felt a bit like this animal myself."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Fortnum breathed life into Paddington'. Print Edition | Subscribe