The Evolution of Winnie the Pooh
James Campbell has worked for sustainability and environmental organisations for more than 20 years. He is married to E. H. Shepard's great-granddaughter and has had responsibility for the oversight of E. H. Shepard's artistic and literary estate since 2010. He currently lives in Oxford. His new book, The Art of Winnie the Pooh: How E. H. Shepard Illustrated an Icon, explores the partnership between A A Milne and E. H. Shepard, and follows the evolution of Shepard's work, from his first tentative sketches through to the illustrations that are so well known today, and also the characters' later incarnations at Disney.
Below exclusively for Foyles, James describes how the groundbreaking approach to illustration adopted by Milne and Shepard came about, which bear provided the inspiration for the drawings and which of the characters was Shepard's secret favourite.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a soft spot for Winnie-the-Pooh – very few childhoods have not been touched by that funny old bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. And when we reflect and think back, almost inevitably our favourite illustration comes up in our mind’s eye, seamlessly creating the image to match the wonderful words. Alan Milne and Ernest Shepard together created four iconic books collectively known as the Winnie-the-Pooh books – but relatively little is known of how these illustrations came about.
My new book, The Art of Winnie-the-Pooh: How E. H. Shepard Illustrated an Icon, now tells this story, largely through Milne’s words and Shepard’s drawings (or ‘decorations’, as they are always referred to in the books), delving into the history of how Milne and Shepard came together, established a harmonious and fruitful professional working relationship, and together created the images and impressions which still resonate with children almost a century later.
Milne and Shepard both had a long-standing professional relationship with Punch magazine, and it was here that the author and publisher E. V. Lucas approached Shepard to ask if he would be interested in illustrating some ‘charming poems’ by A. A. Milne. Shepard was delighted to accept the commission, but Milne needed some persuading. Shepard’s preliminary drawings soon convinced him, and the great success of the poems and illustrations in Punch led to the swift publication of When We Were Very Young, the first of the four books. The instantaneous success of the book inspired Milne and Shepard to collaborate even more closely over the next volume – Winnie-the-Pooh – whereby the two met regularly to discuss not only the text and the drawings, but the layout of the pages and the free-form of the illustrations through the book. This was a ground-breaking approach, one which had been received with extreme nervousness at Punch and with some anxiety by the publisher, Methuen, not only because this was a very different look and feel to a book, but also because production costs were more expensive.
Shepard drew from life, and spent considerable time with the Milnes in both London and at their weekend home in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, drawing Christopher Robin, his surroundings and his toys. Interestingly, Winnie-the-Pooh himself was not modelled on Christopher Robin’s bear – first Edward Bear and later renamed Winnie (after the Canadian bear cub at London Zoo) –the-Pooh (after the nickname for a swan) – in fact Shepard did use this bear as his first model, but both he and Milne agreed it did not work – the bear was too angular and serious-looking. Shepard fell back on the teddy-bear belonging to his own son, Graham – called Growler. Growler was a much better likeness for the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh, and so it is Growler who ended up as the model for the bear we know and love.
This new book shows the evolution of the images of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, from just a few lines in Shepard’s sketch book through preliminary drawings with corrections, mark-ups and changes, to final versions, some never used, and most of which have never before been seen and published. These wonderful drawings and illustrations, which add so much to our understanding of how Shepard brought about the iconic images we know so well, have been hidden for nearly a hundred years in E H Shepard’s own private archive. Towards the end of his long life – he died in 1976 at the age of 96 – Shepard donated all the original black-and-white illustrations in his possession to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they remain, and will form a crucial part of a major exhibition at the Museum on Winnie-the-Pooh from December 2017 – April 2018. Only very recently has the existence of this new material been revealed, and it adds a significant additional dimension to our understanding of Shepard’s approach to creating these matchless illustrations.
While Milne finished writing about Pooh and his friends in 1928, Shepard continued to be in demand for the rest of his life in revising images, creating new illustrations for editions in different sizes and languages, and introducing colour, and the book shows how the original black-and-white ‘decorations’ in the 1920s gradually made way for first spot and then full colour, and how the images changed as a result. There are some wonderful cameos, such as Pooh depicted in a laurel wreath to accompany the Latin edition, Winnie-Il-Pu, and Shepard’s draft cover for a French edition, showing the Bayeux Tapestry incorporating Pooh and his friends set within a Tricoleur. Whilst Milne had some concerns about being remembered only for Pooh, Shepard never lost his affection for ‘the bear’, and so many correspondents in his later years, particularly children, received a personal drawing of Pooh, Piglet or possibly Shepard’s secret favourite, Eeyore, in reply.