Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic, A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin Milne and Pooh Bear, by Howard Coster, 1926
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Exploring a Classic with Pooh Bear
by Gabriela Ferrari
Children’s books were the first introduction many of us ever had to art--especially because when we could not even read yet we still flipped through the pages, mesmerized by the colors and mark-making. Through these shapes and lines came a story, and so we associated art with a riveting experience. Now the books we read have far less pictures and far more words, but that early association of image and narrative comes into play every time we find a story in a painting, an experience in a drawing, or a movement in a sculpture. Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, now at the High Museum of Art (from June 3rd to September 2nd, 2018), strives to use this association to bridge generations in an exhibit that entices everyone, young and old, to connect to that first lightbulb that flickered on when a picture became something more.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic,Line block print, hand colored by E.H. Shepard, 1970 © Egmont UK Ltd, reproduced with permission from the Shepard Trust
This exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (the V&A), is the first in over forty years to explore the wonder and legacy of the classic stories and illustrations of that famous bear we all know and love. Pairing the words of A.A. Milne and the artwork of E.H. Shepard, this exhibit guides the viewer through ninety years of Pooh history in more than two hundred works from the archives of the V&A, the Walt Disney Company, Egmont Publishing, The Shepard Trust, and the University of Surrey. Everything from the expected--illustrations, manuscripts, proofs, and early editions--to the unexpected--letters, photographs, cartoons, ceramics, and fashion--surrounds the viewer in this interactive exhibit. Some of the more hands-on features include a table with paper and pencil to sketch out your own amazing children’s book idea, cabinets of Pooh’s “honey” that you can open and close, and a trunk of goodies that you can add to or take away. These elements, along with the large-scale graphics covering some of the walls, truly allow visitors to feel as if they have been transported into the world of Winne-the-Pooh.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic ,“And pulled and pulled at his boot… The first person he met was Rabbit,
” Winnie-the-Pooh chapter 8, pencil drawing by E. H. Shepard, 1926 © The Shepard Trust
Both A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard owe much of their start to a magazine titled Punch, to which Shepard contributed cartoons and Milne contributed articles. It was actually Punch that brought the two men together by recommending Shepard as an illustrator to Milne for his children’s books. At first, Milne was not too fond of the idea, but after having Shepard over to sketch his son and son’s stuffed animals, he realized how perfectly Shepard’s style went with his wordsmithing. A tactic unique to Shepard and Milne at the time was the intense interplay between the illustrations and the text of the Pooh books. The pictures were truly integrated into the layout of the page instead of just being placed randomly, as was customary at the time. Some illustrators would not even have their images placed on the corresponding page, yet Shepard and Milne were inspired to form a relationship between the words and illustrations. The exhibit includes correspondence between the two men, giving viewers an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at how the collaboration between these two great artists unfolded. Through the years, creativity with the relationship between text and illustration has only gotten stronger and more sophisticated, but back in the 1920’s, Shepard and Milne were the first to truly explore this new, nuanced frontier. Their innovation and foresight keep the Winnie-the-Pooh series so relevant and loved to this day, nearly a century later.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic, “Bump, bump, bump,” Winnie-the-Pooh chapter 1, pencil drawing by E. H. Shepard, 1926 © The Shepard Trust
On the cover of the first edition of the book Winnie-the-Pooh you can see Shepard and Milne’s wonderful partnership in action. There are two illustrations in the corners, one in the top right and one on the bottom left. In both, the general direction of movement is towards the top right. In the bigger illustration, the animals are pulling Pooh out of the hole in that direction, and in the smaller illustration, Pooh is floating with his feet kicking in that direction. This is contrasted by the direction of the text: the title is centered but the credits are aligned more to the right which pulls the eye to the right and downwards. These two combined essentially create two arrows across the cover forming a big X right down the middle to keep the eye engaged and jumping from word to word and illustration to illustration. This sort of thoughtful arrangement is what urged those first fans to pick up the book because, let’s be honest, we all judge a book by its cover.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic, Winnie-the-Pooh first edition, 1924; published in London by Methuen & Co. Ltd; printed by Jarrold & Sons Ltd © Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
What really makes Exploring a Classic special is the undeniable attention to detail. Framing the careful curation of the Pooh artifacts are tiny clusters of buzzing bees and quotes from the series hanging from the ceiling like dynamic literary chandeliers. In the first room to the left, there is a bed with a wonderful Winnie-the-Pooh book ready to be enjoyed facing a “window” looking out to a gorgeous painting of the woods where Christopher Robin and all his animal friends spent their time. This transports the visitor into Christopher’s bedroom as they enjoy perusing replicas of the actual Christopher’s stuffed animals that inspired the stories and pictures of him as a young boy. In one of the main rooms there are two large “trees” emulating the sketched style of E.H. Shepard that you can peer inside of, just like characters did with their partially hollowed out trees. To really take in all the details to their full capacity, make sure to ask the guard for a magnifying glass when you first get off the elevator so that you can zoom on all those itty-bitty details in the textures of Pooh’s fur, on the leaves of the trees, or in the fibers of a tablecloth.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic,Teddy Bear manufactured by Margarete Steiff ca. 1906-1910. Stuffed and sewn mohair plush. Bequeathed by Miss Z. N. Ziegler.
© Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Some of the pieces that stand out the most in the exhibition are the very first character portraits Shepard drew to resemble Milne’s son Christopher’s real toys. Funnily enough, Shepard decided that the title character, Pooh himself, seemed too gruff so he took inspiration from his own son’s stuffed bear for the final character design. These portraits are displayed alongside some replicas of the original toys and pictures of the Milne family so that the audience can compare and contrast and even think up character designs of their very own. The soft, inviting look that Shepard sought is captured beautifully in the drawing below. Each shape of Christopher, Pooh, and Piglet’s bodies are sketched out as a light oval before being darkened into their final form. Not only does this lend a childlike “trial-and-error” feel to the drawings, it also adds some movement, as if the characters are fidgeting just like the real little kids and animals do. Whereas an artist might see this drawing as beautifully complex with layers of foliage and shadow, a child might be most taken with the round movement.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic,“For a long time they looked at the river beneath them,” House at Pooh Corner chapter 6, pencil drawing by E. H. Shepard, 1928. Collection of James DuBose © The Shepard Trust
Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a playful exhibition that will allow anyone to reconnect with their buddies from the Hundred Acre Wood: cuddly Pooh, cheerful Christopher Robins, sarcastic Eeyore, kind Kanga, playful Roo, talkative Owl, gentle Piglet, prideful Rabbit, exuberant Tigger, and even those pesky bees. The combination of the original works with their reinterpretations through the years makes for an interesting juxtaposition and shows how many ways a singular idea can be explored, interpreted, and reimagined. This exhibition is the latest in a series presented by the High Museum celebrating the work of children’s book authors and illustrators, a series that is universally loved for its ability to connect all ages through a love of art and memories of childhood. Exploring a Classic envelops us not only in the story that first captured our attention and hearts, but also in the real people, relationships, and inspirations underlying the tales of friendship, joy, and imagination that shaped so many kids.
Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic,“Pooh and Piglet go hunting,” Winnie-the-Pooh chapter 3, pen and ink sketch by E. H. Shepard, 1926.
From the collection of Clive and Alison Beecham
© The Shepard Trust
Gabriela Ferrari is a Posse Foundation Scholar studying at Boston University majoring in Graphic Design. She interned with Deanna Sirlin and worked on The Art Section during the 2017-2018 school year.