Just before Christmas I met up with a dear friend to take my girls on an adventure of sorts. We chose to go the V&A to see The Winnie the Pooh exhibition. I think I was a little more excited than they were and I was not disappointed, it is a wonder! You might feel out of place if you go without tiny children -mine were the oldest there, but they seemed completely unfased by this fact and I did spot quite a few adults without children….it is well worth seeing.
The marriage between the work of A.A.Milne and E.H.Shepherd is a phenomenal one. In my mind, both men are geniuses in their own right, who managed to transcend their own art form. A.A.Milne used his words in a most visual way so that as the narrator we are lead to perform, rather than just read the text. The language is of course simultaneously simple and clever; prefiguring Roald Dahl, Milne manipulates language and creates words to aid our imagination, which have since become part of our lexicon, from a tiddely-pom to heffalumps and woozles.
Liekwise E.H.Shepherd drawings are not just images used illustrate but add weight and animation to the text, his drawings are an equally important part of the narrative. A simple line can change the energy of the image. And like Milne’s language, his images have become part of our nostalgia.
In using a child’s range of vocabulary for his text, Milne is quoted as saying “It is difficult enough to express oneself with all the words in the dictionary at ones disposal, with none but simple words, the difficulty is much greater’ but perhaps the reduction of text available is the same as the perceived limitations of drawing and line as compared to animation and colour; it is indeed the simplification and purification of both text and image that is so wonderful and allows visual freedom in our imaginations.
Milne writes for all ages and levels, giving adults a delicate humour as they read out aloud …
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…
E.H.Shepherd’s drawings are equally sophisticated, despite the simplicity of the subject matter. He does not just illustrate the text but adds more, putting the characters and their stories within a context, in the landscape, amongst the trees of Ashdown Forest.
His drawings are a mixture of accurate draughtsmanship, value shapes, shaded with mass, with hatching, with squiggles or clear marks and with abstract accents, the distillation and simplification of subject matter with so many additives… this is much more than mere copying. The exhibition itself is interesting on the method he worked in from the block printing etc, starting in pencil and moving into pen and ink and then colour.
We are not mere onlookers, Shepherd makes sure we are part of the story, looking on just behind the characters, inviting us into the story, partaking in the set.
The characters are composed for comic effect within their setting.
We also see how Milne and Shepherd used the images within the text and around the text to add to the story. In “Winnie-the-Pooh goes visiting” all the characters are pulling to get pooh out of rabbit’s hole; Shepherd envelopes the text with tress and Pooh on one side and butterflies and bees on the other side whom obviously can’t help to pull Pooh out, but who do add to the drawing. Piglet is pulling the tail of a mouse and another mouse at the end of the line reluctantly moves to hold the hedgehog all to help the pull!
Shepherd also adds little elements to his drawings to express the changing seasons, from the wind, cast shadows, sweeping leaves, ripples of water and slashes of rain.
Look at “Piglets ears …streamed behind him…like banners”. Shepherd animates the 3 stages, 3 little vignettes. The strong wind is explained with Piglet’s ears, his squinting eyes and one single leaf.
The drawings all seem so naturalistic, but if you look at the drawing of rabbit and tiger you can see that tiger is drawn from a toy with stumpy legs and expressionless, while rabbit is from an actual rabbit with squiggly fur. Shepherd creates his characterisation not through facial expression but postures.
Pooh’s face hardly changes but his sturdy unflappable nature is shown in his solid stance, his arms behind his back listening earnestly.
Shepherd and Milne worked together on the page layouts, “There came a loud buzzing noise”. The text and image work together so that the text pushes up the bees.
Both Milne and Shepherd add their own humour wherever they can; Pooh says ‘Ow. You missed the balloon” when Christopher Robin shots him rather than the balloon. But Pooh is just a stuffed toy, and in the illustration the gun is just a pop gun …
Often the images alert us to the story before the text, so that children are brought in on the joke before the text, irony parody, as in when Pooh is looking for Eyeore’s tail and pulls Owl’s bell-pull.
There are so many sophisticated little choices Shepherd has made, scaling down the size of Christopher Robin in relationship to the toy, creating character through gesture and stance rather than facial features, setting the toy characters within a naturalistic setting. The publishers also recognised Shepherds enormous contribution as he was paid not just in one off payments but shared in all royalties.
For me Shepherds drawing and Milne’s text are a pure joy and the perfect synthesis of two art forms in equal measure simplistic and sophisticated.