Remembering David McKee – Honorary Fellow, author and illustrator of Elmer and Mr Benn
David McKee, author and illustrator of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and Mr Benn, has died aged 87 after a short illness.
The Devon born writer, who was an Honorary Fellow and graduate of Plymouth College of Art, sold more than 10 million copies of his books around the world, with Elmer the Patchwork Elephant remaining one of the most iconic and widely-read children’s book series of all time, selling over eight million copies since it was first published in 1989.
David went on to write and illustrate 29 original Elmer books, which have collectively been translated into more than 60 languages. Meanwhile, Mr Benn started as a children’s picture book in 1967 and later became a BBC TV series.
The story follows an explorer as he leaves his house in London, before being transformed at a fancy dress shop and entering another world appropriate to his outfit.
Born in Tavistock in 1935, David McKee first enrolled with us to study illustration in 1950, when he first began selling one-off cartoons, in particular to the national press. He later returned to Plymouth College of Art in 2011 to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship for his lifetime of achievement.
David McKee and Elmer the Elephant
His publisher, Andersen Press, announced the news in a statement, adding that he died following a ‘short illness’ in the south of France, where he spent much of his later life with his second wife Bakhta, a French-Algerian art-dealer with whom he shared an interest in collecting drawings and African tribal art.
Professor Paul Fieldsand Danks, Principal and Chief Executive of Plymouth College of Art said, “For those that were fortunate to be around in the unsaturated world of 1970s broadcasting, the encounters of the unassuming Mr Benn from 52 Festive Road live long in the memory. If ever proof were needed as to the power of drawing to ignite the imagination, David Mckee's bowler hatted everyman gave us hope for a world full of adventures and possibilities.”
Mel Brown, Principal Lecturer on BA (Hons) Illustration and Assistant Head of School Design + Communication at Plymouth College of Art said, “As a child of the 70s, I first encountered David McKee’s wonderful world whilst sitting as close to the TV as I was allowed, waiting to be transported to other worlds. Wherever Mr Benn would go would determine whether I was going to be a spaceman, a knight or a pirate for the rest of the day.”
“In 2011, when he returned to Plymouth College of Art to receive his Honorary Doctorate, I met him for the first time. It was a meet your heroes moment and I was starstruck, but he was warm and kind, funny and mischievous. His acceptance speech was a triumph - he quietly told us the tale of him getting up that morning, walking into a shop, putting on his funny hat and gown, then walking through the changing room door, exclaiming, “and here I am!”. The hall was packed with graduates and staff decked out in matching funny hats and gowns, and we all cheered. Such sad news about a truly inspirational man but what an amazing body of illustration work he leaves behind to be enjoyed again and again.”
Professor Andrew Brewerton, who was Principal of Plymouth College of Art from 2010 until 2021, said: “David McKee was an artist for whom drawing was as natural and necessary as breathing. And because drawing is a question of attention - the attention of hand, eye and mind - he was the most careful and animated observer of his chosen subject: people. In his work, as in his life, David radiated kindness, and personally speaking, it was both a delight and a privilege to have met him.”