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Rumours abound of an opera (in the mould of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which was transformed into an opera in 1980) as well as a live-action film. London tailors Turnbull & Asser, meanwhile, are set to release a line of pocket squares featuring the children’s book character.

And then there’s also the exhibition at Illustrationcupboard where a rare collection of artwork by Mr Benn creator David McKee goes on show this month. Fifty years on, his signature bowler hat might be slightly dated, but Mr Benn still has an appeal.

That’s the way of taste, says Illustrationcupboard’s John Huddy, who has worked with McKee for nearly 20 years. “There is a certain rhythm with a lot of films and books. Something will be very popular but then the children grow up and there’s a lull. But in some cases it might become a classic and that’s exactly what happened here. It’s really captured the imagination.”

The series chronicles the adventures of an ordinary chap who lives on London’s fictional Festive Road. Down the way is a magic costume shop which he visits on a regular basis. There, the mystical, fez-wearing shop owner encourages the hero to try on a costume and, with the aid of a magical door, Mr Benn is transported through time and space to places such as ancient Rome, the Stone Age and a circus.

When summoned by the shop-owner, he returns with a small token of the place he visited, usually having learned a simple lesson or moral.

Mr Benn – Red Knight, the first of the books, was published in 1967. In 1971, it became the first of the TV episodes to be aired, also featuring illustration by McKee.

Around 45 pieces, from rare film cels to original works for the books to character studies, will be exhibited in the Bury Street, London, gallery as part of David McKee: 50 Years of Mr Benn from August 16-September 16. Today, original works are in short supply as the artist disposed of many of them in the 1970s.

“He regrets it now – not just from a sentimental point of view,” says Huddy, who describes the artist as impetuous as well as generous and intelligent. “David is original,” Huddy adds. “He’s one of those rare artists in any discipline who comes up with ideas that are completely his. It is quite amazing.”

The show includes Tea with David on August 23, a free event where families are invited to come and meet the creator for a book-signing event. And given McKee’s tendency to draw in the books he is given to sign, some visitors could come away with more than they bargained for.


Illustrationcupboard founder John Huddy with deputy gallery manager Daphne Shen in the basement of the gallery.

Summer timing

This is the second of two summer exhibitions for the gallery. The first focused on the works of Shirley Hughes on her 90th birthday, a show so popular that its run has been extended: it will continue on the top floor of the gallery while McKee’s show carries on downstairs.

Summer, it transpires is the perfect time for these exhibitions. Appealing both to children on school holiday and to nostalgic parents, the gallery’s Huddy makes a habit of staging these shows in July and August.

“The art world has its seasons,” he says. “When we first opened our permanent space we struggled to find suitable events and there was a dip in receipts. But gradually I got a feel for the summer nuances and it turned around. People are on holiday but a lot of them are visiting London and having these family-oriented shows is a good thing.”

A few years ago, an exhibition about Anita Jeram, creator of the popular children’s book Guess How Much I Love You, was the gallery’s most popular show of the 12 months.

For Huddy, much of the pleasure is in the artwork itself. “One of my earliest memories is being three or four years old and watching Mr Benn on our black and white telly at home,” he says. “To grow up and work with the man who made it – It’s an amazing thing.”