How did a honey-loving, talking bear from an English forest become one of the best-loved and most enduring fictional characters of all time?
The answer might be found at a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic.” The show, curated by Annemarie Bilclough and Emma Laws, traces the 90-year history and visual evolution of Winnie-the-Pooh (also known as Pooh Bear), from simple early sketches to the more recent, full-color Disney incarnation.
The museum displays for the first time some 90 original sketches, pencil and ink drawings, manuscripts, and hand-painted scenery recreating Pooh’s magical forest, the Hundred Acre Wood. It’s a homage to the rotund, affable teddy who has captured imaginations across generations, and a meaningful insight into how changing times have shaped the image of Pooh over the years.
Howard Coster, A.A. Milne; Christopher robin Milne and Pooh Bear, 1926. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A collaboration between writer A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard (who also illustrated children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows), the first drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh, as well as his loyal companions Eeyore and Piglet, were done in 1926. On a visit to Milne’s home on Mallord Street in Chelsea, Shepard created the drawings based on toys he saw in the nursery.
Milne also invited Shepard to Cotchford Farm, his family’s weekend cottage in East Sussex, Bilclough explains. The illustrator wandered the surrounding forest with Milne, and also drew Christopher Robin Milne, the writer’s son, who would become Pooh’s companion. Milne is known to have based the human protagonists of his stories on the boy.
“The very first of these forest sketches is ‘where it all happened,”’ Bilclough says, noting that the drawing was done spontaneously, on the spot. “Shepard also drew some of the real trees that inspired the characters’ houses—Piglet’s and Owl’s houses. The latter tree was Christopher’s favorite because it had a branch he could walk on.”
Teddy Bear manufactured by Margarete Steiff, ca. 1906-10. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
E.H. Shepard, ‘Bump, bump, bump,’ Winnie-the-Pooh Chapter 1, 1926. © The Shepard Trust, reproduced with permissions from Curtis Brown.
Perhaps the first image of Winnie-the-Pooh as we know him, however, can be traced back to Mr Edward Bear, a character in the 1924 poem “Teddy Bear” in Milne’s book of poetry, When We Were Very Young. With Edward Bear, Shepard seems to have landed upon the style he would pursue. In fact, he went on to create drawings based on his own son’s favorite stuffed bear, a teddy bear made by German plush-toy manufacturer, Steiff. He would similarly base illustrations of other characters on toys.
“Shepard took his sketches and simplified them into outlines,” Bilclough explains. “He rarely gives the characters facial expressions, but suggests character instead through the characters’ posture. In some cases, like Tigger and Kanga, the imagery remained very true to the original toy.”
The exhibition reveals much of the behind-the-scenes of creating Winnie-the-Pooh, including the process through which the pair hashed out how the illustrations would harmonize with Milne’s ideas. “Lines drawn on some of Shepard’s artwork didn’t make it into the finished printed versions,” Bilclough notes, “and some of his pencil sketches show him planning his layout (for example in a three-part image of Piglet’s ears in the wind).”
Following the huge success of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book, a collection of stories published in 1926, and of The House at Pooh Corner, published two years later, Pooh became a product.
Line block print, hand colored by E.H. Shepard, 1970. © Egmont, reproduced with permission from the Shepard Trust.
In 1930, the American literary agent Stephen Slesinger gained licensing rights to sell Pooh products in the U.S. and Canada. “The jacket, which Pooh wore in cold weather when building a house for Eeyore, became more of a feature when Slesinger merchandised the character, but it wasn’t always kept the same color,” Bilclough explains.
In 1961, Walt Disney bought the film rights to the characters and would fix the color of Pooh’s jacket in the first animated films based on the books released in 1966. “Disney gave Pooh his happy expression and made his red jacket a signature of the imagery,” the curator notes.
“Disney also gave Pooh an expression, which Shepard rarely did,” Bilclough adds. “Some of Shepard’s sketches have details that are really only noticeable with close study.” Disney’s simplified version of Pooh broadened the appeal of the stories, particularly among younger audiences, she adds.
While the Disney-fied version of Pooh is perhaps now the most famous, it’s not the only adaptation of the character. “Parts of Eastern Europe have a different image of Pooh, as a brown bear with claws,” Bilclough explains. The Moscow-based animation studio Soyuzmultfilm developed their own version of the bear, dubbed Vinni Pukh, between 1969–72, which became the character’s definitive image in Eastern Europe.
Christopher Robin ceramic tea-set presented to Princess Elizabeth, hand-painted, Ashtead Pottery, 1928. Photo by the Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.
Before he died in 1976, aged 96, Shepard created new line and colour illustrations for The Pooh Story Book and The Christopher Robin Verse Book, as well as hand-colored versions of his original illustrations for new editions of the two Winnie-the-Pooh books, published in 1973 and 1974.
Today, Winnie-the-Pooh continues to be passed on to new generations, through fond memories, books, toys, and films. But what is it that makes this character continue to appeal to both adults and children?
Bilclough points to the “understated humor and clever use of language and dialogue,” nodding to the childlike logic, Eeyore’s sarcasm, puns, and playful misunderstandings. The narratives, she notes, are “very sophisticated, and work on multiple levels.” But they’ve been brought to life through Shepard’s artistry.
“The characters are so well-drawn, we can all relate to one of them, recognize our friends in them, and we care about them,” Bilclough offers. “The stories are about child’s play—inventing adventures to have with your toys, going on quests, climbing trees, hunting imaginary hostile animals—which everyone can relate to.”