The secret life of teddy bears
PUBLISHED: 00:16 23 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:32 20 February 2013
Judy Sharp discovers a whole new Sussex, a parallel universe where Teddy Bears rule
Let's start at the beginning, with the very first teddy bears. The name comes from President Theodore Roosevelt who, following a blank hunting day in 1902, was presented with a tethered bear as a sitting target. He refused to shoot the animal and a cartoonist captured the scene of Teddys Bear A soft toy bear quickly followed.
America went bear mad and Roosevelt acquired a great mascot. Heavens, if Sarah Palin had been President, the poor bear may not have survived and then where would we be? Teddy-less!
At about the same time in Germany Margarete Steiffs company introduced a jointed bear covered with soft mohair plush and this became a huge success, complete with trademark Steiff button in each bears ear. England, too, has a rich heritage of bear makers J. K. Farnell, for instance, whose factory moved from London to Hastings for a decade before it closed in the late 1960s. Merrythought, founded in 1930, bought the famous Farnell name and keeps it alive in faithful replicas of Farnell originals alongside its own ranges including the popular Cheekybears. Deans produced its first bear in 1915 and is still going strong today. The early bears from these manufacturers are the so-called vintage bears that everyone hopes to find in a suitcase in the attic.
It is also an English company that leads the way with modern collectables. There are often waiting lists for the latest releases from Charlie Bears, whose creations are made in Thailand and Sri Lanka and who have collectors worldwide, wanting every bear in a series, every new addition to a family.
At the other end of the scale are the artists, mostly women but with a growing number of men, who lovingly create their offspring one-by-one. Lucky artists will often find collectors who particularly like their style, and who will buy sorry, adopt a number of bears each year.
Copthorne-based Sheila Tester is a very well-established artist whose popular Shebob Bears have found loving new families all over the world. She began making bears as a child, when her parents gave her a book on making soft toys, and hasnt stopped since. Nowadays she creates a few bears a month and says: Every bear I have ever made is stitched with a generous helping of love into his/her seams.
A bears personality evolves as she is working. If Im not happy with the expression, then I work on him until he looks back at me and says, now thats better Mum.
At Sheilas prompting, I visited the Bear Fair at Brighton before Christmas where more than 50 artists were each displaying dozens of their creations, in all shapes and sizes, and in every colour of the rainbow. Price tags ranged from around 10 to several hundred pounds and the bears looked just as appealing as abandoned puppies in a dogs home, all with that take me home look. With such a bewildering choice how on earth would I ever choose? You dont ever choose a bear, said Sheila, a bear chooses you.
This very personal two-way relationship is clearly part of the secret. Bears somehow transcend age and sex, fashion and class. John Betjemans bear Archie accompanied the future Poet Laureate to Oxford, for instance, and was in Betjemans arms when he died in 1984. Archie was the inspiration for Aloysius, Sebastian Flytes bear in Evelyn Waughs novel Brideshead Revisited, and so joins the growing ranks of ever-so-famous Teds.
Hotel chain Travelodge conducted a survey last year among 6,000 guests and discovered that 25 per cent of men took Ted on business trips but hid him from visitors and new girlfriends at home! Some 15 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women said their bear was their best friend, there to listen to intimate secrets and problems. The plot thickens . . .
Next stop was Lewes, to talk with Sue Pearson, whose Bears & Bygones shop is an amazing Aladdins cave of vintage and collectable bears. Early Steiffs and Farnells sit faded cheek by fluffy jowl with modern Cheeky Bears and Charlie Bears, and theres even a hospital facility for poor old Teds who need some serious TLC. Many grown-ups bring their lifelong bear friend for major surgery rather than throwing him away and buying a new one: Its just not the same.
Sue is an acknowledged expert on bears. Her passion started when she was given her grandmothers bear, whom she still treasures. A serious collector herself, she has written several books on the subject and has lectured around the world. I met with Sue and her son Jasper who helps run the business.
These experienced Bear People spoke about the childhood feelings of security, love and comfort that were all personified in the bear we took to bed at night and cuddled when we were ill or sad; the bear who listened to our troubles and told us everything would be all right.
They explained that grown-ups would often buy a sad old bear instead of a fluffy new one when they needed a companion. You should only ever buy a bear that you love, said Sue. Surrounded by all these beautiful bears, I asked which one I should choose as an investment. Jasper explained that very few people buy vintage bears purely as investments - you really should love it too. While modern collectables are typically priced from 50 to 150, rare Steiffs have risen in value by some 30% in the last two years with a few more noughts on the prices.
There certainly are some serious collectors, one being former American fund manager Paul Greenwood, convicted of major fraud. Christies auctioned his confiscated collection of 1,300 Steiff bears last year in the biggest sale ever of its kind: the 585 lots raised just over a million pounds. Thats a very bullish bear market if you ask me!
As I drove home through Ashdown Forest, I wondered if I was any closer to discovering what it was about bears. I remembered probably the most famous bear of all, Winnie the Pooh. He was a Farnell Alpha bear bought by Ashdown resident A A Milne for his son Christopher Robin in 1921 and the Pooh stories were all based in the Forest. Perhaps we should not analyse bears too much after all. Maybe that je ne sais quoi is special bear magic. In fact, the wisdom of Pooh sums it up perfectly.
How do you spell love? asked Piglet. You dont spell it, said Pooh, you feel it.