‘Paddington Comes to America’New exhibit opens at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

  • Author Michael Bond with Paddington Bear plush toy by Gabrielle Designs, 2014.   Photograph by Terry Harris. © P&Co. Ltd. 2018

  • R.W. Alley has illustrated Paddington for longer than any past illustrator. R. W. Alley, Illustration for “Paddington at the Circus,” HarperCollins, 2000. Courtesy of the artist. © R. W. Alley 2018.

  • Above, R. W. Alley, Illustration for “A Bear Called Paddington,” HarperCollins, 2007. Courtesy of the artist. © R. W. Alley 2018 

  • R. W. Alley, Illustration for “A Bear Called Paddington,” HMH Books for Young Readers, 1998. Courtesy of the artist. © R. W. Alley 2018.

  • R. W. Alley, Illustration for “Paddington and the Grand Tour,” HarperCollins, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. © R. W. Alley 2018

  • Above, Ivor Wood, “Illustration of Paddington,” late 1970s.   Courtesy of The Copyrights Group. © Paddington and Company Ltd. 2018

  • Barry Macey, Illustration for “Paddington at the Station,” 1982. Courtesy of Barry Macey. © Paddington and Company Ltd. 2018

  • At left, Peggy Fortnum, Preliminary sketch of Paddington, 1958.

For the Gazette
Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Think of the character Paddington, and a distinct image emerges: blue duffle coat, a red, floppy hat … and a furry bear’s nose peeking out from underneath. 

Perhaps this image brings you back to a bedtime story that you heard as a child, or read to a child yourself. Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, remembers sitting on a shag carpet as a kid and watching the animated bear on a TV screen. More recently, Paddington has made the leap to the big screen.

But in the beginning, there was just the book: “A Bear Called Paddington,” written by Michael Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Published in 1958, the story follows the adventures of an orphaned six-year-old bear from “darkest Peru” who is adopted by an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, at the Central London railway station that becomes his namesake. “Please look after this bear,” reads the handwritten label around his neck. And so they do, bringing Paddington back home to meet their children, Judy and Jonathan, at their London home at Number 32 Windsor Gardens.

With his penchant for marmalade and misadventures, Paddington quickly captured the hearts of the Brown family — and of readers. Today, more than 35 million Paddington books have been sold worldwide, and they have been translated into more than 40 different languages. With their themes of kindness, inclusion, compromise and tolerance, it’s easy to see why the stories still resonate with readers. Paddington is an immigrant who must learn to navigate a new land, and he gets plenty of help from strangers who soon become friends (including Mr. Gruber, who is originally from Hungary and now runs an antique shop).

“He is very distinctly British, but the things that he deals with, the little mishaps and adventures he goes on, are universal to children,” said Keiter in a recent interview in the children’s library at the Carle Museum. “It’s really about navigating your way in the world and the joy of discovering things.”

To commemorate Paddington’s 60th birthday, the museum is inviting fans to “Paddington Comes to America,” the first American exhibit dedicated to the bear. “We’re thrilled to be the first venue in the United States to welcome Paddington to this side of the Atlantic,” Keiter said. “He’s such an iconic character in children’s literature, so it seems fitting that he come here to the Carle.”

The museum designed the exhibition largely around the theme of journey, as a nod to Paddington’s path from Peru to England. Visitors to the exhibit will adventure throughout London, stopping at attractions like the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Paddington Station and Big Ben, all places where Paddington stories have been set. The three-dimensional landmarks feature enlarged drawings by R.W. Alley — whose cheery illustrations have accompanied the stories since 1997 — and give visitors the opportunity to try on Paddington’s Wellingtons in front of Buckingham Palace, walk up the steps to 32 Windsor Gardens and explore a double-decker bus converted into a reading nook.

Visitors will also be given a passport book to get a stamp at each of the locations they explore to commemorate their travels. 

Paddington over the years

On Christmas Eve of 1956, author Michael Bond was working as a BBC cameraman when he bought his then-wife, Brenda, a last-minute present — a forlorn-looking teddy bear that he had seen in a London toy store. At the time, the couple lived near Paddington Station, and Bond wrote some stories about the bear for fun. He soon realized he had a book on his hands and sent it to his agent, who found a publisher, William Collins & Sons (now HarperCollins).

“The interesting thing is that I don’t think he set out to write a children’s book,” Alley noted in a recent interview. “It was just the story that occurred to him at that time.” The publisher hired Peggy Fortnum, who soon brought the bear to life in pictures. After photographing real bears at the London Zoo, she drew the first Paddington in pen and ink.

“Paddington Comes to America” pays special attention to how the bear has been depicted by different artists over the decades. “This is a character who has remained identifiable throughout the past 60 years, but has been interpreted by many different artists, which is unusual,” Keiter said. The exhibition features original drawings by his six different illustrators — starting with his original depiction by Fortnum — and looks at how Paddington has evolved over time, with subtle changes to the color of his hat and coat, the varying textures of his fur, and the introduction of his Wellington boots, for example. 

The exhibit also creates a well-rounded image of Bond, who passed away in June 2017 at the age of 91. His only daughter, Karen Jankel, loaned many of his works and belongings to the museum. (Bond’s Olympia typewriter from the 1960s is on display, courtesy of his estate.) “She was born in 1958, the year that Paddington came out, so she’s literally grown up with Paddington,” Keiter said, adding that he’s practically a “surrogate brother.”

While the character was inspired by a stuffed bear, Alley pointed out that Paddington is absolutely not a teddy bear. “Paddington is a real bear, a real six-year-old, basically,” he said. This is something Alley strives to make clear in his drawings by showing Paddington with a range of expressions and emotions so that “you don’t notice, when you’re looking at the book, that there’s a bear interacting with humans,” he said. 

Bond worked closely with Alley, as he did with his other illustrators, to bring to life images that had previously existed only in his imagination. Bond sent Alley “gazillions” of photos, as the artist put it, to convey his vision for the London homes and neighborhoods that Paddington visits.

Bond was always revising, never wanting the Paddington stories to become outdated, Alley added: “The stories were always reactions to the current events of the day.” Modern additions like the London Eye and renovations to Paddington Station were included in reprints of older books. “In many ways, [Bond] thought like an illustrator,” Alley said. “He had a very strong visual sense of place.”

And a visceral sense of character, too. “All his characters were more than characters to him; they were very much alive,” Alley said. “What I take away from the character Paddington is how he approaches the world. It shows what happens when you’re open and generous and nonjudgmental about the people you meet.”

One could say the same about Alley, whose exuberance is contagious. He also identifies with the bear for another reason. As an American who lives in Barrington, Rhode Island — he’s the only American to have illustrated the series — he is also an outsider to British culture. “I had some sympathy for Paddington because sometimes I did not understand what Mr. Bond was getting at with some of his asides about English life,” he said. “I came to the character somewhat fresh, and maybe that was part of the reason Mr. Bond liked my interpretation.”  With Bond’s passing, Alley is doubtful that there will be new Paddington stories written. However, before his death, Bond wrote a final Paddington manuscript. The story is inspired by St. Paul’s Cathedral, which Bond visited to write a tribute for Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday. “He was obviously on the lookout for something that would spark his interest and, indeed, something did,” said Alley. The new story, titled “Paddington at St Paul’s,” is set to be published in the U.K. in June. “It’s wonderful that there’s this last picture book that’s completely brand-new,” Alley said and smiled. “It’s going out on top.”

“Paddington Comes to America” will be on display at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, located at 125 West Bay Road in Amherst,  April 14 - October 7. To learn more, call 559-6300 or visit carlemuseum.org.

This exhibition is generously supported by HarperCollins Children’s Books, global publisher of the Paddington Bear books since 1958 and YOTTOY Productions, long term toy partner of Paddington in the U.S. since 2005.