The story behind Winnie-the-Pooh is a bit complicated, but not too complicated if you have more than a Very Little Brain. Writer A.A. Milne wrote about the adventures of Winnie, Piglet and Christopher Robin based on his own son, Christopher Robin Milne and his teddy Edward Bear, which was renamed Winnie after they visited a bear named Winnipeg at the London Zoo. When it came time to make the pictures, however, illustrator E.H. Shepard based his sketches off of Growler, his own son Graham’s teddy bear, creating the rotund little honey-obsessive loved for almost 100 years. Now, Shepard’s estate has found the very first sketches of the famous bear, which are being published in a new book on the artist.
Alison Flood at The Guardian reports that James Campbell, who has written several books on Shepard and runs the artist’s estate, discovered a trove of 150 sketches including 80 that had never been published. Among those documents are a page from a sketchbook that Campbell believes is the very first image of what was to become Pooh.
“E.H. Shepard kept a vast amount of material throughout his very long working life – he was still working at the age of 95. Towards the end of his life, he sorted out his material, and he basically gave away everything he thought was of value.” Campbell tells Flood. “On his death, he said in notes to his executors that all of the material left was essentially of no value – scribblings and sketches. So as a result, no one looked into it for 30 years.”
However, as Campbell assisted researchers looking for some of Shepard’s sketches of World War I, they went through the “rubbish” finding the Pooh sketch and many others.
The rotund little bear was not the first iteration of Pooh. Shepard first based some sketches off of Christopher Robin’s actual teddy bear. “When they looked at it, they agreed that it just did not work,” Campbell tells the BBC. “This bear looked too angular and rather grumpy. And so Shepard in fact turned to his own son’s teddy bear, Growler, as the model for Winnie the Pooh.”
Campbell says that besides the quality of the art and the story, the Pooh books were so popular because they were the first to place the illustrations within the text, versus relegating them to illustration or photographic plates. That way, the text and images could interact in a way readers had not experienced before.
How those illustrations came to be, along with that earliest Pooh Bear sketch, appear in The Art of Winnie the Pooh: How E.H. Shepard Illustrated an Icon, available now in the U.K. and in U.S. next year.
For those who can’t wait, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is opening a Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit including original sketches, the Winnie-the-Pooh tea set received by Elizabeth II as child and, of course, honey from the hives on the roof of the museum.
Sadly, Growler cannot attend. He was reportedly torn to shreds by dogs after traveling with Shepard’s granddaughter to Canada during World War II. In the immortal words of Pooh, "Oh, Bother"