An exhibition on the much-loved children’s book, Winnie the Pooh, ran from 9th December 2017 - 8th April 2018 at the V&A, located just down the road from The Egerton House Hotel. We interviewed Annemarie Bilclough, one of the exhibition’s curators, about our favourite fictional bear.
What is it about Winnie the Pooh that has retained such timeless appeal across the generations?
“First of all, the stories are so simple and are rooted in the everyday, in child’s play and adventure. I think that appeals to people because it evokes memories of our childhood.
Then there’s the humour, which appeals on a different level. There’s a lot of understated humour like language and wordplay. They’re designed to be read aloud, which makes them very sociable books. The way AA.Milne uses punctuation with hyphens, capitals and italics allows people to perform it as they’re reading it out. He believed in not talking down to children; he liked to write, as he said, ‘up to their level’.”
Can you describe the exhibition for us?
“The exhibition is an exploration of the origins and the inspiration behind the story and the illustrations. We’re borrowing Milne’s original manuscript for Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. We’ll take you through Christopher’s nursery to look at some of his family photographs, where we have an audio recording of AA Milne himself reading one of the stories.
Then we go into Shepard’s studio and we’ll see his son and his bear, as it was his son’s bear that was the model for Winnie the Pooh. Of course, Shepard visited Ashdown Forest with Milne. Milne showed him all the places that were the inspiration behind the stories. We’ve got the original map of 100 Acre Woods as drawn by Shephard.”
Why will children and adults love this exhibition?
“From the start, the whole design is playful and immersive. We’ve got a setting with some ambient sounds that reflect the weather, as that’s quite a big theme in the book. There’s a lot of audio and visual material in the space as well. In the first room, we’ve got a clip from one of the Disney films and there are also excerpts of some of the hums from different periods. We’ve got an American 1950s one, before Disney, and a 1930 George Baker singing a hum. That’s one of the first recordings, taking you right back to the origins of the story. He was played for 30 years on BBC Children’s Hour, from the 1930s to ‘60s.
There’s also an opportunity for play and dressing up; you can invent your own heffalump animal and draw it. And there’s the immersion part of it too, where you can pretend that you’re on Poohsticks bridge.”
Which of Shepard’s drawings stand out for you?
“I’ve got quite a few favourites. I love the little comic book ones, where you have a sequence of vignettes that bring to life a particular event. There’s one of Piglet where he’s struggling with the wind and his ears, and the quote from the book says ‘Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners’. Shepard elongated the ears so that they’re flapping in the wind and he draws him trying to control them as he’s walking along. I love that one.
For the first time, we’ve got the pencil sketch alongside the pen and ink sketch of the famous Poohsticks image, which is the one of Christopher, Winnie and Piglet whilst they’re playing poohsticks on the bridge. That’s quite nice to see those side by side.”
Are there any highlights from the exhibition?
“One of the stars is the hand-painted tea set that belongs to the Queen. It was given to her when she was two years old when she was Princess Elizabeth, because she’s the exact same age as the Winnie the Pooh books. She was born in 1926, and she was presented with this hand-painted tea set. She’s got one of two of the original hand-painted ones; Christopher Milne has the other one.”
Why is this an exhibition that shouldn’t be missed?
“It’s a once in a generation opportunity to see a large number of these sketches close up, both pencil and the pen and ink drawings, alongside AA Milne’s manuscript. It’s the first time in 40 years that such a large number have been on display.”
The V&A is a short stroll away from The Egerton House Hotel, perfect for a family outing during your stay in London.