“Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” will explore how Pooh and Friends have entered our collective imagination, extending beyond the original stories into global popular culture through Walt Disney animation, art, fashion, politics and philosophy. And show how Pooh’s story, including his valuable life lessons on friendship, have stood the test of time with families around the world.
Pattering in the footsteps of David Bowie and Pink Floyd, the Bear of Very Little Brain is heading for the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) to star in its first exhibition celebrating the most famous bear in literary history, Winnie-the-Pooh.
The museum has been on a roll, with record visitor numbers for the giant rock music exhibitions, but Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic will be the first in the main museum targeted at families with young children. It will have playful settings by Tom Piper, the designer whose torrent of red ceramic poppies brought crowds to the Tower of London in the centenary year of the first world war.
The exhibition will be the largest to date on the bear and his friends from the 100 Aker Wood, and will bring together loans from other collections including a Winnie-the-Pooh tea service presented to the young Princess Elizabeth, coming from the Royal Collection, original illustrations, letters, photographs, manuscripts, and the museum’s own delicate pencil sketches by EH Shepard for the beloved characters, which are so fragile they have not been exhibited for 40 years.
There will of course also be hunny from very distinguished bees – from the hives on the roof of the museum.
The museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, said the V&A, which houses the world’s largest collection of Shepard drawings, was the perfect home for the exhibition. “This is our first exhibition specifically for younger families and we look forward to welcoming another generation into AA Milne’s magical, intimate, joyous world,” he said.
The museum will look at the links between Milne’s characters and the real world, most famously his own son, Christopher Robin, whose life was haunted by his alter ego. In adult life he recalled that he hated the girlish clothes and long hair his mother kept him in, that he learned to box to cope with bullying at school, and that his father – apart from the stories – was “not good with children”. He died in 1996.
Winnie-the-Pooh was inspired by bedtime stories about Christopher Robin’s bear Edward, and Shepard studied the toys and the trees in Ashdown Forest near their home to create his enduring images. When We Were Very Young, a collection of poems, came out in 1924 soon after Christopher Robin’s fourth birthday: the initial edition was 5,000 copies, but it had to be rapidly reprinted as 44,000 copies sold in the first eight weeks. Winnie-the-Pooh followed in 1926. Together with the second book of poems and The House at Pooh Corner, the books have since sold millions of copies in every language including Latin and Esperanto.
The exhibition will also feature many objects drawn from 90 years of merchandising, including toys and games, ceramics and textiles, and from the Walt Disney animations that almost overshadowed the originals. Many self-help books have appeared inspired by the bear’s apparently simple approach to life: one aphorism, captured in a Shepard illustration in the museum collection, is “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming”. In one poll the public voted Winnie-the-Pooh the greatest philosopher of all time, and the 19th anniversary of his creation was marked with a talking “Thotful Spot” bench installed at sites including the real wood and near the statue of Confucius at King’s College London.
Milne, already a successful playwright, first met Shepard when they were both working on Punch magazine. The origins of their most successful joint creation lay in the teddy bear bought from Harrods by his parents for Christopher Robin’s first birthday, but the final version of Shepard’s drawings looked more like his own son’s bear, a Steiff teddy called Growler. The name Winnie-the-Pooh (always hyphenated) was inspired by Winnie, a bear at London zoo that fascinated the child, and the setting for the stories came when in 1925 the Milnes bought a large house, Cotchford Farm, on the edge of the 500 acres of Ashford Forest.
The house has a bleaker fascination for a very different group of fans: it was later the home of Brian Jones, a founder member of the Rolling Stones, who drowned in the swimming pool there in 1969.
- Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, V&A London, 9 December 2017 – 8 April 2018
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