The thing about Winnie-the-Pooh, 91 years old this year, is that he’s the creature of E.H. Shepard, who drew him, quite as much as he is of A.A. Milne, who created him. The words and the pictures came together for anyone who encountered Pooh Bear in the books rather than the film. Any exhibition about him, then, has to grapple with the difficulty of doing justice to the text as well as to the drawings. And, moreover, to the fact that many of those who love him best heard about him first in a story that was read aloud. And for all that Pooh is a byword for world-class — or rather, middle-class — whimsy, there is something fragile and evanescent about the world he inhabits: he evokes the time When We Were Very Young. Tread softly, then, around this bear.
The V&A’s exhibition — Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic — and the double act of Milne, the ‘laureate of the nursery’, and E.H. Shepard, who drew the pictures, is the first in 40 years. But the star of this show is Shepard who, remarkably, immortalised two of the seminal books in English children’s literature, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows (a far greater book).
Among the exhibits here are replicas of two bears on whom Pooh was based (as well as the actual bear in London zoo) — Christopher Robin’s own Pooh (who made a noise when you pressed his tum), and Growler, who belonged to Shepard’s children and was chewed by a dog. Looking at those unprepossessing creatures, you realise that Shepard didn’t draw what he saw. They had ordinary toy-bear noses; the genius of Shepard was to give Pooh that distinctive upward curve to the snout — a lovely line — which is his hallmark. And he gave his body those curves that are reminiscent of the tubby tummy of a child.
Look, too, at the first drawings of Kanga and Roo. They look like toys; they have seams. Then look at them once they enter the world of Christopher Robin. They have come to life — Roo bounces, Kanga bustles. What you see in these preliminary sketches, and then in the drawings for the book, is the creation of something vital.
He was such a wonderful draughtsman was Shepard. The line is so assured, the shading so delicate, the idea of movement conveyed with a stroke. His preparatory sketches for the woods of the story — done from the place itself — are beautiful. Even if you can’t stand nursery stories you’ll love the trees.
Most visitors will be divided into young children and those who remember the books from when they were young. There’s something for both. The exhibition almost entirely ignores the Disney Pooh, though it does find a little space for the Russian television version, drawn by Eduard Nazarov. This bear looks, to us, nothing like the real thing: no clothes, very brown, with dark ears and paws (but he was very popular in Russia, apparently). The recent film about the making of Pooh, Goodbye Christopher Robin, doesn’t feature, but we’re conscious now of the cost that being Christopher Robin exacted on a small boy.
The exhibition combines several elements of the books: there are words from them suspended from the ceiling or projected on to it; children can hear readings of the stories in a private corner. On entry, you see blue balloons hanging from the ceiling. Then there’s a big case filled with some of the umpteen spin-offs of Pooh, from Spirograph characters to the tea set that the Queen (who is exactly the same age as W-the-P) was given for her playhouse.
From there we go back to the beginning of the whole thing, to an imaginary nursery with reproductions of the original toys, and then on to the genesis of Pooh and the collaboration between Shepard and Milne. After that, you find yourself in scenes that evoke Hundred Acre Wood, including a wooden bridge over a moving projection of a stream, with Poohsticks floating from one side to the other. At the end, there are assorted editions of the book.
As for the aural backdrop, for the most part it’s the sound of birds, though when I was there the soundtrack that made me want to reach for my revolver was Ann Lloyd’s bright recording of ‘Cottleston Pie’.
Small children can sit halfway down a flight of stairs, as in the poem, or ring the bell at the entrance to Pooh’s house, or turn a wheel to see how the footprints in the snow look in the hunt for the woozle. Meanwhile, the adults can read excerpts from A.A. Milne’s column in Punch, or look at the letters from Milne to Shepard and the photos.
There is a glimpse of the after-life of the stories, and some amusing spin-offs and parodies in the catalogue. Absent, alas, is the most devastating assault on the Pooh phenomenon, ‘Far from Well’, Dorothy Parker’s 1928 New Yorker review of The House at Pooh Corner, which concludes with the immortal line: ‘And it was that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.’
Yes, yes, of course it was whimsy. But as Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote in a preface to Ann Thwaite’s Goodbye Christopher Robin: ‘The magic of the Hundred Acre Wood is that it takes something painfully fleeting and makes it stay for ever.’ Childhood passes, but Pooh remains.
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