The Life and Works of Alfred Bestall, Illustrator of Rupert Bear

Six years older than Winnie the Pooh and 90 years old this year, Rupert Bear has a claim on the nation's heart as the quintessentially British bear. With his impeccable manners, jaunty, smart-casual wardrobe and idyllic Middle England lifestyle in Nutwood village, he would ­appear to be the veritable David Cameron of cartoon characters.

His original creator, Mary Tourtel at the Daily Express, drew him as brown; when her eyesight began to fail, Alfred Bestall succeeded her as the writer and illustrator of the Rupert stories (he remained in the job for 30 years) and rendered him white, more boyish, less bearish and so popular that many men of a certain vintage are named after him.

The Life and Works of Alfred Bestall by Caroline G Bott, Bestall's god-daughter, is a strange hybrid of memoir, biography and archive material. Even if there can hardly be a person over 50 who did not get given the Rupert Bear annual, his world is now so remote as to make Harry Potter seem dangerously daring. The scene on the end­papers, showing Rupert and friends all sitting on a fence and looking down a valley towards a misty lake surrounded by mountains, is a delicate evocation of a paradisal British childhood. Where did that vision come from?

Bestall, who never married, was the son of a Methodist missionary, Arthur Bestall, and a mother whose talent at art was clearly inherited by her adoring son "Freddie". He was born in Mandalay in 1892 and returned from Burma with a spinal injury and a speech impediment; his sister Maisie was mentally impaired. As was common for families living in the empire, the children were sent home to be schooled. Freddie went to a Wesleyan public school in North Wales, where he was good at cricket and athletics, won prizes for drawing and fell in love with Wales. By the time he had been to art school in Birmingham and London and begun to sell his cartoons, the First World War had broken out. Despite being notably frail, the 23-year-old offered himself so repeatedly at the local recruiting office that he was eventually sent into medical transport, in the so-called Bantam Division for underweight men.

The war that shattered the health and trust of a generation does not seem to have affected Bestall as badly as some. Perhaps his drawing helped as much as his faith; it made him popular among his fellow men and kept him from feeling bored. The diary and letters quoted in the book show that, although Bestall witnessed hideous sights, he was always aware of natural beauty. His cartoons for Blighty magazine show sturdily drawn soldiers in trenches exchanging dour jokes, but you feel no shadow of despair in them. Only one, of the Kaiser, shows real loathing.

It took four more years to break into drawing for Punch, where Bestall's gentle wit and fastidious style became instantly recognisable. He was much admired for a technical ability that showed not a whit of artistic self-consciousness. You feel his good-natured jokes - such as a girl saying to another in the cinema, while a violent scene is enacted on screen, "There, look! That's the kind of perm I'm going to have" - must have been noted from life. He loved portraiture, especially of children and good-looking men; whether his lifelong bachelor status was due to any deeper interest in these seems speculative, given his overwhelmingly strong emotional attachment to his mother and a romantic interest during the 1930s in Beatrice Nicholson.

Rupert Bear's existence is as sexless and ageless as can be imagined - Bestall reversed the gradual ageing process imposed by Mary Tourtel once he took the column over in 1935, and improved the storylines. Although, for example, pictures of a black child named Koko are so racist as to cause a modern audience a sharp intake of breath, Bestall saw his role as "the most vitally important job in Fleet Street". He kept at it even as an air-raid warden in the Second World War. The Rupert annual sold 1.5 million copies one year, which brought it into a class with the Bible and the thoughts of Chairman Mao. His admirers include Paul McCartney, Prince Charles, Terry Jones and Terence Stamp.

What makes Bestall's work so charming is a sense of life as neatly defined by prelapsarian "good taste": so much so that you can see why ­Rupert Bear was irresistible to parody for the notorious "Schoolkids" issue of Oz magazine in 1970. These animals are the sort who wear tweed and have human hands. There's more verity in a single line of Beatrix Potter, but his audience doesn't want truth any more than
did the families of the soldiers he drew in the First World War. He is the little bear who never grows up and, unlike Peter Pan, never needs to.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and the children's critic of the Times

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle