YUL Brynner, Mickey Rooney, Hughie Green, Pope John Paul II, Ravi Shanker and Rupert Bear. What could they possibly have in common? 

The answer is that they were all born in 1920, but the little bear in the yellow checked scarf and trousers has survived them all.

It seems bearly believable, but Rupert is getting close to his 100th birthday and – just as exciting – I’m delighted to report that a son of County Durham will be at the heart of the celebrations.

Stuart Trotter, Ferryhill lad born and bred, took over as the official illustrator of the Rupert annuals in 2008 and has just started work on his tenth, which will coincide with the character’s centenary.

Stuart, who is writing the storyline as well as producing the illustrations, said: “It’s an honour to be associated with Rupert and to be part of a little bit of history.”

That history goes back to November 8, 1920, when Rupert made his first appearance in the Daily Express. He was created by Mary Tourtel, the wife of the paper’s night editor, after it was decided that the Express needed a cartoon to win sales from its main rivals, the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. 

Alfred Bestall, previously an illustrator for Punch, took over as Rupert artist and storyteller in 1935 and continued into his nineties. An annual has been released every year since 1936 and the character was also turned into a TV star.

The next annual is due to be published by Egmont UK in July next year and will be branded as the centenary edition.

Rupert at 100 is quite a coup but he isn’t Stuart’s only claim to fame. During his career, he’s worked on Wallace and Gromit, Winnie The Pooh, Thomas The Tank Engine, and The Animals of Farthing Wood.

Just like Sheila Graber, the Paddington animator I wrote about last week, he’s a North-East gem who is refreshingly modest about his achievements.

His latest project is a collaboration with London cartoonist Rosie Brooks to capture operas in easy to understand book-form.

The “My Little Opera” books so far comprise La Boheme and The Marriage of Figaro, with Madame Butterfly coming next and The Barber of Seville also scheduled.

Stuart is acting as designer and publisher through his company, Rockpool Children’s Books, and the famous Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex, and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York have already agreed to stock copies.

Not bad for a Ferryhill lad, eh?

STILL on the subject of art, it was a pleasure to bump into talented mum-of-three Sarah Hill the other day.

Sarah, pictured in the middle below, was giving an arts class at Ushaw, the former Catholic seminary on the outskirts of Durham, which has been reborn as a tourist attraction and events venue.

And it was fascinating to find out how her new career as a professional artist had emerged out of illness.

Sarah, of Durham City, told me how she’d been working as a medical research scientist at the Institute of Genetic Medicine in Newcastle until she was struck by severe respiratory problems and pneumonia.

She was forced to leave work due to what she describes as being like a “six-months-long asthma attack” and discovered that art was the perfect therapy.

Through a close friendship with professional artist Jenny Ulyatt, Sarah started painting and discovered that it helped control her illness.

“It was just wonderful therapy,” said Sarah. “When you’re painting, you don’t think about breathing and, therefore, you relax. I found that it really helped.”

Four years on, Sarah is now working as a professional artist and shares a studio with Jenny above the bus station in Durham city centre.

As well as selling paintings, she and Jenny go into schools to work with children, and she also runs workshops for adults.

She has just arranged to hold monthly watercolour workshops in the stunning setting of Ushaw, near Bear Park.

“I was looking for somewhere with artistic inspiration to hold workshops and Ushaw seems the perfect place,” she says.

“It has a special atmosphere, is easily accessible, and has a refectory where we can have lunch while we paint. We have been made to feel so welcome and, hopefully, it’s a partnership that will continue.”

Art really does have the power to change lives. To find out more, go to www.sarahhillart.weebly.com

The Northern Echo:

ART is also prophetic...The last word this week comes thanks to my old boss David Kelly (the man who was to blame for making me editor of The Northern Echo in 1999) for sending a cartoon strip he discovered while clearing out a filing cabinet. First published in 1964, I think it was ahead of its time...

The Northern Echo: