It’s 91 years since AA Milne published Winnie-the-Pooh, followed two years later by The House at Pooh Corner. Milne was assistant editor at Punch magazine, where he met illustrator EH Shepard. Their work has enthralled children ever since.
The V&A exhibition Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic (until April 8) is a delight for children and grown-ups alike. Original artwork is on the walls, including draft pages and unused illustrations. We can follow how both Milne’s and Shepard’s ideas developed before the final version. There’s plenty to fascinate the adult Pooh-lover.
But for children … For small children there’s a dressing-up box; there’s a bed they can lie in to have stories read to them; there’s a little door they can walk through, Pooh’s own front door; there are small stairs they can climb and stop halfway down; there’s a “house” made from what looks for all the world like an old-fashioned folding clothes horse (a favourite from my own childhood). It’s magical.
And for children of all ages there’s AA Milne’s great contribution to society: Pooh Sticks Bridge over a virtual reality stream with twigs passing underneath it. There’s a darkened area, like a cave, where you can hear AA Milne himself, from 1929, reading one of his stories, while words are projected on the walls and ceiling.
The exhibition makes it clear that “Shepard was as much the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh as Milne”. Our visual image of Pooh is based more on Growler, a bear owned by the Shepard children, than on Christopher Robin Milne’s own bear; in a caption Shepard describes him as “quite the best fellow I have seen anywhere”.
He had, said Shepard, “a comfortable air and the right waist measurement for Milne’s leading character”. Below that is a caption in larger lettering: “Mr Shepard’s son Graham had a teddy called Growler. He was friendly with a round tummy, so Mr Shepard drew him when he created his illustrations.”
This is the first V&A exhibition designed specifically for young families, with children actively encouraged to explore their own creativity. The Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition ends, delightfully, with “But, of course, it isn’t really Good-bye, because the Forest will always be there … and anyone who is Friendly with Bears can find it.”