Winnie-the-Pooh: a classic of collaboration

Original drawings of Winnie-the-Pooh are on display at the V&A for the first time in nearly 40 years as part of the UK’s largest ever exhibition on Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard. In particular Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic examines the thrilling interplay between text and illustration, shedding new light on the creative collaboration between Milne and Shepard, as curators Emma Laws and Annemarie Bilcough explain.

The concept of illustration as visual storytelling is particularly

important in books for children; while listening to the words and looking at the pictures, they are essentially participating in the narrative process. In the Winnie-the-Pooh storybooks, the interplay between text and image plays a crucial role in imparting the narrative. Already in 1928, one contemporary reviewer for the New York Times described A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard ‘as indispensable one to the other as Sir John Tenniel and Lewis Carroll’.

The story of the two men’s collaboration began in 1924 when a mutual friend, E.V. Lucas, suggested to E.H. Shepard that he might illustrate Milne’s verse book When We Were Very Young. Although Milne and Shepard knew of the other’s work, they had not actually met. Their first meeting in 1924 seems to have gone well, as Milne sent Shepard a short note of thanks: ‘If you are always as jolly and as crack right as this, I shall consider myself very lucky in my collaboration.’ It seems from letters exchanged between them that Milne took a close interest in the illustration process, having the illustrations returned to him with each batch of verses and occasionally replying with suggestions for new ones.

By the time Milne was writing his storybook Winnie-the-Pooh, Shepard was accepted as the man who would illustrate it, although J.H. Dowd had illustrated the first story when it appeared in the Evening News on 24 December 1925, and Alfred E. Bestall the second for Eve: The Lady’s Pictorial (10 February 1926). Milne wrote to Shepard: ‘So I have now promised L[ucas] & D[aphne?] a ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ book. I don’t know if you have heard of this animal – Christopher Robin’s bear. It began with a story in the Evening News (illustrated not very well by Dowd); & went on with one in Eve (illustrated very well by Bestall). I hope you have seen neither, for your own sake. I have since written two more – now being typed. I propose a book of 12 such stories, illustrated by E.H. Shepard, bless him.’

It was important to Milne that Shepard base his illustrations of the characters on Christopher’s own toys and he invited Shepard to his home in Chelsea in June 1926: ‘But I think you must come here on Thursday, if only to get Pooh’s and Piglet’s likeness’. In Winnie-the- Pooh, Milne offers the reader no description of his protagonists. He leaves it to Shepard to introduce – visually – both Christopher Robin and Edward Bear, his teddy, as they come down the stairs – ‘bump, bump, bump’; the result is one of the most familiar and best-loved of the Pooh illustrations. While Shepard’s portraits of Christopher’s toys inspire his character vignettes, he distils their general appearance

16 Books for Keeps No.228 January 2018

into outlines and animates them. Occasionally, the odd leg seam betrays their origins. Milne and Shepard continued to exchange ideas in letters and met regularly for Sunday lunch or tea at Cotchford Farm, the Milnes’ weekend cottage in East Sussex.

The imagined world of Winnie-the-Pooh is a curious fusion of fantasy and reality, conjured from the real landscapes of Ashdown Forest near Cotchford Farm. Milne rarely describes the Forest in his stories; instead, Shepard visualises it for the reader. Just as with the toy portraits, Milne was keen for Shepard to see the Forest and they took walks there together several times. Shepard returned again in 1928 to draw, for example, the pine trees at Gills Lap, which inspired the ‘Enchanted Place’ in The House at Pooh Corner. For the famous plan of 100 Aker Wood used for the endpapers to Winnie-the- Pooh; Milne sent Shepard a plan of the topography of his corner of Ashdown Forest and suggested that Shepard place the characters in front of their houses.

Shepard’s full-page landscapes play a central role in the scene setting. Milne was evidently appreciative of them since he even altered his text to accommodate the illustration of Eeyore with his tail in the stream when Shepard mistakenly provided a full-page illustration instead of a small vignette.

Excerpts from Winnie-the-Pooh appeared first in The Royal Magazine and Milne and Shepard worked closely with Frederick Muller at Methuen to arrange the layout of the magazine spreads. Some designs made their way into the published book; it was the

A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926

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