Like most of us, Winnie-the-Pooh has many faults. He is unashamedly greedy — particularly when it comes to honey, or ‘hunny’ as he likes to call it.
We are, after all, talking about a bear who can polish off an entire pot in one sitting and enjoys ‘elevenses’ at any, perhaps every, hour.
As a Bear of Very Little Brain he can also be naive and slow-witted and his spelling is appalling. But he is also friendly, thoughtful, kind-hearted and, above all, steadfast.
This is how everyone’s favourite Bear of Very Little Brain first looked, as Milne attempted to bring the subject matter of a poem to life for publication in a magazine
He writes poetry — albeit incorporating a lot of ‘hum’s — organises endless parties and invented the famous game of Poohsticks.
Never one for false modesty, he’ll be beside himself to know his adventures in Hundred Acre Wood have been translated into 46 languages, including Frisian, Mongolian, Esperanto and Latin (Winnie ille Pu) and that he’s inspired societies worldwide.
But angular and grumpy looking? Never! Could you even imagine it, just for a second? No.
Yet he was, briefly, once upon a time in the early Twenties, when author AA Milne and illustrator EH Shepard were co-creating a character of a bear for a poem to be published in the satirical magazine, Punch. And try as they did, they couldn’t get him quite right.
According to James Campbell, author of The Art Of Winnie-the-Pooh, who is married to Shepard’s great-granddaughter, the first sketches of Pooh — inspired by Milne’s son Christopher Robin’s toy bear — were far too fearsome.
‘He was far too gruff-looking — not very cuddly!’ says Campbell. ‘And with rather a strong jaw.’
In short, a bit too, well, beary. Not at all the sort of creature who might hide from bees hanging off a red balloon. Or rescue Eeyore from a flood in an upside-down umbrella. Or present Piglet with a deflated balloon for his birthday.
It didn’t help that Milne hadn’t wanted to work with Shepard at first. When F H Townsend, Punch’s art editor, showed him some of Shepard’s drawings, Milne huffed: ‘What on earth do you see in this man, he’s perfectly hopeless.’
‘You wait,’ said Townsend. And when Shepard got home after drawing that first bear, he remembered his own son Graham once had a teddy, too. But a bear far less threatening, more cuddly and with a twinkle in his eye, called Growler. (Yes, Growler!)
Milne’s creation would go on to take the form he’s most known for now, in contrast to the angular approach of the first cartoon
He drew him, complete with fat tummy, upturned nose and pleasingly comforting physique, sent it to Milne — and that was that.
This first depiction of Growler —found in one of Shepard’s recently unearthed sketchbooks, hidden for nearly a century and revealed for the first time in Campbell’s wonderful book — shows how simple and economical his style is. Just a few soft pencil lines but, unmistakably, it is Pooh Bear.
In a second early effort, we see him clutching what Campbell says ‘looks like a barrel, but was sure to become a jar of honey’.
Milne was happy, Winnie-the-Pooh was born in that poem for Punch and, over the next 90 years, his adventures inspired films, philosophy books, a multi-million pound Disney franchise, an Estonian punk band called Winny Puhh and a court case over rights involving Disney.
Milne and Shepard even became firm friends. They had plenty in common — they were both officers in World War I, were both married with young children, lived in the same part of London and worked for Punch.
But their working style was revolutionary. Instead of Milne writing the words and Shepard’s pictures added later as if an afterthought, they collaborated, with neither in charge.
Pooh’s greatest adventures were enjoyed alongside his best friend, Piglet, and he became famed for his gentle nature
So Milne based Christopher Robin on his son and Pooh on the character (if not the unappealing looks) of his son’s teddy Winnie-the-Pooh. Who, to confuse matters further still, started life as Edward Bear, but was renamed in honour of Winnie, a black bear originally from Winnipeg, Canada, with whom Christopher Robin Milne fell in love on trips to London Zoo. ‘Pooh’ was the name of his pet swan.
The two men met most weeks at Milne’s London house, where Milne would sit on the sofa reading the poem or story, young Christopher would sit on the floor playing with the characters and, by his side, EH Shepard sat making sketches.
Crucially, Shepard relied not just on his son Graham’s portly teddy, but also on memories of Graham himself. According to Campbell, the fictional Christopher Robin is ‘a sort of amalgam’ of the two boys and their lives.
Sometimes the Shepards would visit the Milnes’ country home, Cotchford Farm in Ashdown Forest, near Hartfield, Sussex — the inspiration for Hundred Acre Wood — so he could get the topography right. Many Shepard illustrations can be matched to real views and all were inspired by the open heathlands of gorse, silver birch, bracken and pine trees.
Even the game of Poohsticks was originally played by AA Milne’s son Christopher on a footbridge across a tributary of the River Medway, close to their cottage.
The wooden bridge is now a tourist attraction and when it needed replacing, the design was based on drawings of the bridge by Shepard, which differed from the original structure.
Winnie-the-Pooh is now known to many for his love of honey, but not the bad temper his original incarnation evoked
Chapter by chapter, other characters — such as Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo — emerged. Most were toys from Christopher’s nursery bought as birthday and Christmas presents from Harrods. However, Owl and Rabbit, and Rabbit’s extensive network of friends and family, sprung from Milne’s imagination, so Shepard just had to guess.
The books revolutionised the world of illustrated children’s books, as for the first time, illustrations were embedded in the text, not added later. Bees buzzed across the page and balloons floated skywards or sagged as Eeyore looked in dolefully from the side.
The readers’ reaction was overwhelming. The first book of illustrated poems, When We Were Very Young, was published on November 6, 1924. With a print run of 5,000, it sold out on publication day. Success overwhelmed them. They weren’t expecting it at all.
Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926. It was an instant sensation. In the U.S. it sold 150,000 copies by the end of the year and has never been out of print. Next came Now We Are Six, the second collection of poems, followed by The House At Pooh Corner, the fourth and final book, published in 1928.
AA Milne wrote no more children’s literature — perhaps because Christopher Robin had grown too old to read them.
Eventually, Pooh became known to the world as the friendly but greedy best friend of Piglet
But Shepard continued to illustrate later editions of the Pooh books and brought to life Mole and Ratty and co in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows.
Shepard and Milne never worked together again but remained close friends until Milne died in 1956, aged 74, having suffered from a stroke years earlier.
When Christopher Milne wrote his 1974 memoir, The Enchanted Places, he gave a copy to Shepard, inscribed, ‘For Ernest Shepard who added so much of his own very special magic to that of the Enchanted Places’. Shepard died in 1976, aged 96.
Now, more than 90 years after he ate his first jar of honey, Pooh and his friends are to be honoured with an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Original drawings will be displayed for the first time in nearly 40 years, alongside video and audio clips, including a 1929 recording of Milne reading Winnie-the-Pooh, as part of the UK’s largest ever exhibition on the bear.
Will Growler be there, too? Oh, please don’t ask. His life took a rather unfortunate turn. After the outbreak of World War II, he voyaged to Canada, where he was dearly loved by Shepard’s granddaughter Minette Hunt — only to be savaged by a neighbour’s dog.
A similar fate, it transpires, befell Piglet — Christopher Milne’s toy pig was ripped to pieces by dogs.