How Winnie the Pooh’s illustrator helped A.A. Milne draw out the bear we all know

Martin Salisbury, Anglia Ruskin University

In children’s literature, a small number of classics are remembered for their illustrations as much as they are for the author’s words. Sir John Tenniel’s original drawings for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books are, for many readers, impossible to disentangle from the text. Roald Dahl’s stories have become almost inseparable from Quentin Blake’s pictures, and Thomas Henry’s images of William defined him as succinctly as the writing of Richmal Crompton.

The relationship between author and artist can vary greatly. Tensions occasionally run high between the creators of verbal and visual versions of a narrative. It has been said that Tenniel was sometimes exasperated by the sheer volume of Carroll’s requested amendments to his drawings. This may have been a contributing factor to the artist’s apparent reluctance to commit to illustrating Through the Looking-Glass.

It can be difficult for authors to accept an illustrator’s interpretation of their creation. Many writers are reluctant to see their work illustrated at all, feeling that any imagery is an intrusion into the reader’s visual imagination.

Illustration itself is something of a hybrid art form, somehow straddling the worlds of graphic design and fine art, but traditionally always subservient to the written word. The UK has a particularly rich tradition of graphic art – from Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gillray through Randlolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, Beatrix Potter and on to Edward Ardizzone and Ronald Searle.

Yet compared to many nations, until recently it has never seemed entirely comfortable with according illustration and illustrators the highest status in its cultural institutions. Searle was honoured with a major retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris – but was never similarly celebrated in his home country.

So I welcome the opening of an exhibition which will shine a light on a great British illustrator whose drawings are known around the world. Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria Albert Museum in London will offer visitors the chance to see much of the original art and preparatory sketches of E.H. Shepard, whose work surely stands alongside that of Tenniel in the pantheon of great book illustration.

The exhibition will explore the interesting working relationship between Shepard and Winnie the Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, and the way the visual identities of their characters evolved.

Many of the drawings from the museum’s own collection are so fragile that they have not been exhibited for over 40 years. Correspondence between the two men and recently discovered early Shepard sketches reveal a great deal about the gradual emergence of Pooh as we have come to know him.

In particular, the process of making connections between drawing directly from observation and drawing from imagination, will be on display. Shepard’s Pooh Bear was initially modelled on the real toy bear of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin. But author and artist felt that he was too harsh and gruff-looking – not quite appealing enough. Instead, Shepard made a sketch of his own son Graham’s teddy bear, who was named Growler. Growler turned out to be just right and it was he who gradually “became” Pooh.

Bear necessities

Shepard’s great-granddaughter is married to James Campbell, who has overseen the Shepard estate since 2010. He recently uncovered a hoard of early drawings the artist had filed away and labelled as being of little importance. But they include what must have been some of the very first iterations of Pooh. In one of them, the bear is holding what appears to be a barrel, which Campbell suggests may have evolved into the familiar jar of honey.

Shepard’s meticulous, exacting draughtsmanship meant that he produced thousands of working drawings, which are key to understanding his process. This draughtsmanship was honed from an early age. Initially encouraged by his mother, who died when he was ten years old, Shepard continued to draw compulsively and gained entry to the Royal Academy Schools at the age of 19.

It was after he had become a regular contributor to Punch magazine that Shepard was recommended to Milne. The writer was not immediately convinced that his style was suitable, but he was pleased by the drawings for his collection of verse, When We Were Very Young.

Read More: How Winnie the Pooh teaches us the importance of play

Over time, artist and illustrator became friends. They collaborated closely on the Pooh books, not just on how or what to illustrate, but on the actual interplay between word and image. The term “picturebook” is now used to describe the book for young children that tells its story through a synthesis of words and pictures, neither of which would make sense if “read” independently of the other.

The ConversationWord-image game playing has since become increasingly sophisticated. Back in the early 1920s, Milne and Shepard were among the first to explore the potential of the page as a kind of stage – where words might be adjusted and adapted to coexist and harmonise with the pictures they accompany.

Martin Salisbury, Professor of Children’s Book Illustration, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How Winnie the Pooh teaches us the importance of play

Eleanor Byrne, Manchester Metropolitan University

He is famous for his love of honey, and being a bear of “little brain”. So Winnie the Pooh might be a little surprised to find himself the subject of a major new museum exhibition.

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic will explore the creative partnership of writer A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard. Together they produced the much-loved whimsical stories featured in Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

The decision by the Victoria and Albert museum in London to hold the exhibition proves that the bear and his friends have become establishment figures. As children’s literature expert Peter Hunt notes, they are “part of British culture, passing from generation to generation”.

One element of the incredible success of the Pooh books is that they reflect ideas about childhood that emerged in what is widely known as the “golden age” of children’s literature, spanning from the mid-19th century to World War I.

The golden age view of a child’s world was one that was close to nature – the child an innocent before the imposed horrors of school and education, and a figure of loss and nostalgia for the adult. This was very much the landscape of Winnie’s home in Hundred Acre Wood.

As cultural theorist Stefan Herbrechter said: “Children are supposed to live in a world of their own, which is clearly defined and marked out as the space and time for play and in which toys are the main objects and controlling devices of socialisation.”

However, Milne’s books are more poignant and have a slightly different flavour, than other examples, such as Wind in the Willows (of which Milne was a great fan, writing a stage adaptation). They came after World War I, when many illusions about innocence, the upper class, Englishness and patriotism had reached breaking point.

They contain traces of the experiences in the trenches that marked both Milne and Shepard, whose illustrations of carnage at the Somme and Paschendale were the subject of a separate recent exhibition.

The pastoral paradise of Hundred Acre Wood was one that Milne, who wrote passionately in favour of pacifism, conjured from his own childhood memories – back to a time before the terrifying intrusion and destruction of the war.

As such, Milne’s invented world is also saturated with loss, poignantly embodied in the depressed donkey character of Eyore, who sees no reasons to be cheerful. It is also haunted by the threat of leaving the safe space of the wood for places over the horizon that can’t yet be seen. When Christopher Robin and Pooh organise an “expotition” to the North Pole, they find a large pole in the woods and label it accordingly.

Toys, argues Herbrechter, are intimately concerned with storytelling. They are “like little story machines, narrative catalysers, objects that help make sense of the world”.

This idea is addressed with humour and complexity in Milne’s writing, and beautifully rendered in Shepard’s illustrations that always emphasise the “toyness” of the animals. It explains much about why these books have remained so loved.

Pooh the satirist

Milne shows his real life son Christopher (whom Christopher Robin was named after) how playing with his toys is a kind of writing, just as the playwright makes scenes for his characters. Before he wrote the Pooh stories, Milne worked as a playwright and as a satirist at Punch magazine.

We can detect the specific pleasures of introducing the craft of storytelling to his son from a man who made a living from writing. Milne’s stories gently teach the young credulous reader, who reads literally, that they may be other more rewarding ways of interpreting the world, and what the difference is between what people say and what they mean.

Milne offers the pleasures of word play. The narrator explains that “Winnie the Pooh lived in the forest all by himself under the name of Sanders”, which meant “he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it”.

The non-literal reader is invited to find this funny. Similarly, if Piglet says anything “carelessly” he is probably concealing a very important wish. He will say he isn’t afraid when he wants to appear brave.

Although the Pooh books were famously dismissed by fellow satirist Dorothy Parker, who wrote a dismayed and withering review of Winnie-the-Pooh, the success of Milne’s works suggests that he managed to translate his love of making stories into a form that beguiled the child reader. Stories which showed how they too might make an imaginative life for themselves in the world of storytelling and understand how to master words and meanings.

In one notable scene Pooh finds himself stuck on the doorway to Rabbit’s house, and must wait for a week until he is thin enough to be pulled free. Christopher Robin sits down with him and reads him a “sustaining book”, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness.

The ConversationThe comforting presence and companionship of a good book is something all readers of Pooh take away with them. And it is perhaps this which explains the enduring popularity of these stories, which taught us how to read and write in our own way.

Eleanor Byrne, Senior Lecturer in English, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.