Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic

Original drawings and manuscripts for Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK’s largest ever exhibition on the classic books written by A A Milne and illustrated by E H Shepard.  For the first time in over forty years, the V&A is inviting enthusiasts of all ages to "Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic" to discover and rediscover the magic of their storytelling.

A contemporary reviewer described A A Milne and E H Shepard "as indispensable one to the other as Sir John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll".  Their collaboration came about through E V Lucas, a mutual associate at Punch. Lucas, who was also Milne’s publisher at Methuen, sat next to Shepard at the famous Punch table and one evening over dinner he invited Shepard to illustrate Milne’s children’s verses. Milne had already left Punch to pursue a career as a freelance writer but he knew Shepard’s work and initially had a somewhat dim view of it: "I used to say to F H Townsend, the art editor, on the occasion of each new Shepard drawing, 'What on earth do you see in this man? He’s perfectly hopeless', and Townsend would say complacently, 'You wait'." They were, however, ideally matched with Shepard’s vigorous drawings well suited to Milne’s light verse. The verses appeared in Punch from January 1924 and were eventually published in When We Were Very Young on 6 November 1924. Shepard went on to illustrate Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), another verse book, Now We Are Six (1927) and a final book of stories, The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

"Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic" is the first exhibition to examine the art of narrative in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and to shed light on Milne and Shepard’s extraordinary creative partnership.  Milne and Shepard worked collaboratively, exchanging ideas in letters and meeting regularly at Cotchford Farm (the Milnes’ weekend cottage in the East Sussex countryside) or at Methuen’s offices in London.  Illustrated excerpts from Winnie-the-Pooh appeared first in The Royal Magazine. Stories in magazines had to be eye-catching but the format restricted the size and scope of the illustrations.  Milne and Shepard worked together on the page layouts, incorporating one or two striking full-page illustrations with lively vignettes placed within the columns of text.  Their playful and unusual page designs in The Royal Magazine are appealing features in Winnie-the-Pooh.

Remarkably, Milne begins the first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh by referring immediately to Shepard’s illustration: "HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump …".  From the outset, Milne signals to the reader that the ensuing story is to unfold in a subtle and participatory exchange of words and pictures; crucially, he also establishes Shepard as co-creator. Milne offers no description of his protagonist but leaves it to Shepard to introduce–visually–both Christopher Robin and his ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’; the result is possibly one of the most familiar and best-loved children’s illustrations of all time. Indeed, for many, it is Shepard’s image of Pooh that endures–a bear hanging on a balloon, wrestling with a honey pot or leaning over a bridge to play Poohsticks.   

  

Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are masterpieces of verbal and visual storytelling; the more imaginative the interplay of text and image, the more compelling the narrative. Typically, illustrators play a supporting role but Milne was keen to acknowledge Shepard’s equivalent role as visual storyteller; indeed, he was even prepared to alter his text to accommodate the illustration of Eeyore dipping his tail in the stream (Winnie-the-Pooh, Chapter 8)–Shepard had mistakenly drawn a full-page illustration instead of a small vignette. Throughout the books, Shepard’s illustrations punctuate the text and alter the pace of Milne’s narrative; sequences of vigorous vignettes protract the action and contribute to the humour. Shepard had a genius for interpreting text ironically–Christopher Robin’s ‘Sustaining Book’, for example, offers nutritional rather than spiritual sustenance to the ‘Wedged Bear in Great Tightness’.  Much of the humour arises from differences in the visual and verbal storytelling. When Pooh goes in search of Eeyore’s tail it is Shepard, not Milne, who first reveals to the reader the whereabouts of the tail, hanging as a bell-pull at Owl’s front door; Pooh takes a little longer to figure it out. Dramatic irony is a clever device in books for young children because it lets them in on a secret and involves them in the storytelling. It is the visual equivalent to the pantomime refrain, "It’s behind you!".

Aspects of the art of Milne’s storytelling–his hilarious dialogue and entertaining and innovative use of language–are revealed in the exhibition in the original manuscripts of the two storybooks borrowed from the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge. Playfulness is a feature of Shepard’s illustrations too. Preliminary pencil sketches from the V&A’s collections, together with important pen and ink drawings from several private collections, demonstrate Shepard’s understated humour, vigorous draughtsmanship, keen observation and delightful evocation of movement and character in just a few lines. From the outset, the curators were keen to bring the books to life in an inspiring and immersive setting. Tom Piper, designer of the field of poppies artwork Wave and Weeping Window at the Tower of London, has teamed with Alan Farlie of RFK Architects, Helen Lyon of Studio HB, David Bickerstaff of Newangle and Zerlina Hughes of Studio ZNA to celebrate the art of the book within the exhibition design with large-scale scenery based on Shepard’s landscape drawings and playful physical representations of Milne’s text.  

"Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic" is curated by Emma Laws and Annemarie Bilclough and runs until 8th April 2018. Tickets can be booked in person at the V&A, by telephone or online. A new V&A publication, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, accompanies the exhibition. Copies are available in the exhibition shop and online. Find out more about the exhibition here.

Emma Laws is the Frederick Warne curator of children’s literature at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Pictures: © The Shephard Trust