Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a wonderfully fun and uplifting exhibition but be warned: only go if you’re prepared to step carefully among the scores of toddlers large and small, running squealing and laughing from one interactive treat to the next. For this exhibition is an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to create a fun and stimulating exhibition for parents and children, very small children. Very, very small children.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What I hadn’t expected is that, in among all the fabulous blow-ups of the characters, the models, the play tent, the mock-up stairs and the slide, there is also quite a serious and scholarly exhibition of some 95 of E.H. Shepard’s original Winnie the Pooh illustrations, accompanied by some very interesting and illuminating commentary.

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch. He was a prolific professional writer, producing humorous verse, social satire, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for Punch as well as numerous other magazines and illustrated a variety of books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front. These are collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War, on sale in the V&A shop, and were also included in the excellent overview of Shepard’s career held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000.

In 1913 Milne married Dorothy ‘Daphne’ de Sélincourt and in 1920 she had a baby they named Christopher Robin Milne.

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

In 1924 Milne published a volume of verses he’d made up for his son, When We Were Very Young, which included a poem about his son’s bear, humorously nick-named Winnie the Pooh. This was followed by a book of stories –Winnie-the-Pooh – in 1926, then The House at Pooh Corner (1928) with a second volume of poems, Now We Are Six, in between (1927).

An exhibition for children

Five minutes after it opened the exhibition was packed, and I mean packed, with mums and prams and scores and scores of 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, toddling from one treat to the next. The exhibition has been designed to be as toddler-friendly as possible, in numerous ways:

– There are as many blow-up images of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and the rest as it’s possible to ooh and aah at. I particularly liked the model of Pooh holding on to his blue balloon and sailing up towards the ceiling.

– There is lots going on down at floor level, starting with the large-scale words naming each section, festooned with jolly cutouts of all the Pooh characters.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– Other treats include a cubby hole inside a big blow-up of the letter O of ‘Owl’ for the very small to crawl into, and a mock-up of the tent Pooh makes in the woods, to hide in. There’s a slide to slide down and little tables and chairs with scraps of paper and coloured pencils to draw on. I used to take my small children to one o’clock clubs to play and draw. I remember it all so well.

– There’s even a mock-up of pooh sticks bridge which, alas, only has a digital stream running underneath it so no actual dropping of sticks is possible. (Given that there’s a fountain and pool in the main courtyard of the V&A I wonder if it crossed the designers’ minds to make this flow from one end to the other, erect a bridge and give kids real sticks.)

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– There’s a model of the door into the tree where Pooh lived to run in and out of, along with a bell with a rope hanging from the knocker, so that the sound of a bell being manically rung by a succession of three-year-olds accompanies you around the exhibition.

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room where you can lie on the floor and watch the words being projected on the ceiling.

– And throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

  • ‘Piglet is struggling against the snow and the wind. How would you feel if you were Piglet?’
  • ‘What do you think a heffalump looks like?’

Suggestion

My experience of looking after small children in party places is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and exhaust themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience.

At the recent exhibition on Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, they filled the ante-room half way through the show with lots of cushions and lots and lots of books, large and small, picture books, cartoon books, story books, and while I was there these were permanently full with kids reading for themselves, or mums or grandparents reading to toddlers. For all its digital wizardry, what this exhibition missed was some quiet spaces like that.

Still, top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show child-friendly and exciting.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

Milne himself was the first to acknowledge that it was Shepard’s illustrations which brought Pooh and his animal friends to life. From the start of the exhibition Shepard’s original pencil illustrations for the books are sprinkled in among the displays of Pooh memorabilia, first edition books, props and toys – but as the exhibition proceeds there are steadily more of them and, particularly in the final three, rather narrow corridors, the show turns into a fairly scholarly and fascinating analysis of Shepard’s drawing technique.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, showing a mock-up of Christopher Robin’s bedroom (with a toy bed which you’re encouraged to lie on and read). Note the half a dozen prints of Shepard’s original artwork on the wall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These last few corridors group Shepard’s marvellously evocative drawings into sets of two or three and uses each group to demonstrate a particular aspect of his craft. This is actually quite rare at art exhibitions. Usually you get a lot of biographical information, general history, some explanation of the subject matter and so on – but you rarely very much about how the works are actually made.

The curators have done a tremendous job of explaining how Shepard gets his effects. For example, in this drawing of Pooh and Piglet walking through the snow, they explain how Shepard first drew the figures, then used gouache to ‘stop out’ i.e blot over, some of the lines, thus creating a realistic sense of the snow falling in your line of vision between you and the characters.

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

Next to it is the picture of Hundred Acre Wood in the downpour which causes the flood. The commentary explains how Shepard methodically drew the main subject – the imposing beech tree and the rising water level – and then used a knife to incise the surface of the paper in diagonal lines to create an almost physical sense of rain falling.

There are about twenty little sectionettes like this, packed with insights. They bring you right into the pictures and give you a tremendous appreciation of Shepard’s skill and technique. Subjects include:

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail, to give a sense of movement and dynamism.
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves, which is much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book.
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always show foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom.
  • Expression – Related to the above, the curators point out the simple fact that none of the animals has an expression, their fixed expressions never change. The powerful sense you have of the characters’ changing moods is created almost entirely by their stances and attitudes.
  • Slapstick – shows how Shepard drew sets of pictures giving a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly something he learned from the movies. The example given is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it.
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them, and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about.
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being the scene when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the balloon, the way the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action.

Shepard’s trees

I found myself falling in love with Shepard’s depictions of trees.

At one stage there’s a set of drawings Shepard did when Milne took him to Ashdown Forest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood –  and, devoid of animals or characters, they are simply very good drawings of a wood, a copse, a clump of trees, or individual beech trees.

The more illustrations you look at, the more you realise it’s the completely naturalistic rendering of the trees and bushes which gives so many of the pictures their sense of space, depth and verisimilitude, against which the little animals live out their adventures.

Surely the tree is the real star of this illustration. From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surely the tree is the real star of this colour illustration, bringing everything else to life? From Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees was drawn in tremendously realistic detail, Shepard using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right. Whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, using a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume. Note how Pooh is in a characteristically phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back, Piglet is (as so often) looking up in admiration of some larger animal) while ahead of them Tigger is in characteristically exuberant mood, caught off the ground in mid-bounce (note the little shadow beneath his body).

In other words, this detailed commentary to Shepard’s illustrations gives a fantastic insight into how he used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As I mentioned earlier, there are some 95 drawings and illustrations by Shepard in the show, and the wall labels explaining in detail how he created his visual effects, how he and Milne integrated the pictures large and small into the text, creating dramatic and ironic effects by their interplay – provide one of the most genuinely illuminating and insightful commentaries on an artist’s work I think I’ve ever read.


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