Art

‘Paddington Bear’ exhibition tells the story of the most English of Peruvian bears

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Ten years after the HMT Empire Windrush brought Britain’s first major influx of West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom, and 10 years before Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his famously inflammatory speech predicting “rivers of blood” if Britain allowed mass migration, a fictional Peruvian orphan arrived in London with a tag hanging round his neck that said: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”

In his 60th anniversary year, Paddington Bear has now made his way from London to Tokyo in the form of a traveling exhibition. As well as being a straight-up treat for fans, Anglophiles in general should enjoy the extensive collection of illustrations and memorabilia that provides a tangential look at Britain’s postwar history and visual culture.

Michael Bond (1926-2017), the creator of the most English of Peruvian bears, served in the Royal Air Force and British Army, and based the character of Paddington partly on the sight of young evacuees in World War II. The children were moved out of British cities into the countryside in order to avoid routine bombing campaigns by the Germans, and were required to have labels pinned to their clothes that stated their name, home address and destination.

Paddington was first drawn by illustrator Peggy Fortnum for 1958’s “A Bear Called Paddington,” and, as is clear from the chronologically organized exhibition at The Bunkamura Museum of Art, he has changed considerably since his first outing.

Fortnum drew the always polite and often accident-prone character from observations of a Malayan sun bear at the London Zoo. The original Paddington was sketched in black and white with lively, economic strokes, and was more bear-like compared to color versions by Fred Banbery in the 1970s, David McKee in the ’80s and John Lobban in the ’90s. Aimed more directly at younger children, the latter animated Paddington was less a hapless and adorable creature getting used to the strange quirks of the British, and more an annoyingly cheery teenager with no impulse control.

This first Paddington, like Dick Bruna’s Miffy and Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, was often depicted without distinct facial expressions, a useful technique in illustration wherein the reader is better able to project their own feelings onto the character. However, as his appearance developed from text-oriented books with the occasional illustration to picture books, cartoon strips and, most recently, digital animation for a pair of well-received films in 2014 and 2017, it is apparent that Paddington has become much more openly expressive.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are explanatory panels on touchstones of postwar English life that feature in Paddington’s adventures — marmalade, elevenses, cricket, hot cocoa, toffee — but Bond did not use his creation to promote the English as unequivocally good. Child evacuees faced a variety of responses when they moved in with their host families, and there were some reports of abuse. This dark side of British life is reflected in the character of neighbor Reginald Curry. Portrayed as a racist old grump by Peter Capaldi in the “Paddington” films, Mr. Curry wants to get our furry hero deported.

A January review of “Paddington 2” by the Chicago Tribune’s Rex Huppke correctly, and very wittily, picks up on the bear’s role as an immigrant. It’s a sentiment that’s also touched on in a 2015 New York Times article by Pico Iyer, a British-born writer of Indian parentage who now lives in Nara. Iyer talks about his own parallel experience of growing up “small and brown and foreign” in postwar England.

“Paddington Bear” — come for the cuddly kids character, stay for the subtle social commentary.

“Paddington Bear” runs through June 25 at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. Tickets cost ¥1,400 for adults, ¥900 for students and ¥600 for junior high students and younger. For more information, call 03-5777-8600 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum/20180428.html.