A magnificent bear. I have never seen his like.
- E.H. Shepard
Winnie-The-Pooh couldn't have put it better himself - in one of his less-humble moments, that is. As, for example, when he optimistically hummed his own praises in the "Anxious Pooh Song." Anxious because he was concerned that he might not be remembered for the great thing he had done when he saved Piglet from drowning:
Well, Pooh was a Bear of Enormous Brain
(Just say it again!)
Of enormous brain -
Well, he ate a lot....
But, in fact, it was not Pooh who said these words. It was one of the two men who, in the 1920s, presented Pooh Bear to the world and made him a classic. A.A. Milne was the author of the Pooh books. But it was E.H. Shepard, as illustrator, who gave Pooh his unmistakably rotund and honey-filled form (resembling, in Pooh's self-important moments, the rather later silhouette of Winston Churchill, particularly from behind).
Milne and Shepard were meant for each other. It is impossible to imagine Milne's children's books without Shepard's ink drawings dotted through them. They follow the tenor of Milne's funny writing, and enhance it by adding an originality of their own. Pooh is a case in point.
Milne invited the artist to his home to see the real small boy who was fictionally at the center of the books, Milne's only son, Christopher Robin. (Though in the family he was called Billy Moon.) Shepard was also taken around the local landscape, which provided the setting for the Pooh stories. He sketched it, as well as the child and his toys.
But Pooh was a quite different teddy bear from the one Shepard insisted was right for the illustrations. In fact, Shepard had already introduced Pooh in his illustrations for Milne's book of verses, "When We Were Very Young" (1924).
The model for this character was his own son's bear, Growler. The Milne bear, which still exists (Growler emigrated to Canada in the '30s and was savaged by a dog), is fluffier and much thinner. It was Growler that Shepard described with such words of admiration ("I have never seen his like," he says in "The Story of E.H. Shepard, the Man Who Drew Pooh," by Duke Kent). It was Growler who must have sat (or rather stood) for the portrait in oils now offered at auction by Sotheby's.
Shepard was fond of saying that he started out to be a painter but ended up as an illustrator. In the art world, painters were considered by many to be a much higher form of life than illustrators.
But Shepard probably touched more hearts - and perpetrated more laughter - with his illustrations than he would have as a painter. In fact, he painted very few oils. Although he loved the medium, this picture, for all its mock-solemnity, lacks the deft, quick wit of his line drawings. It was reputedly done about 1930 for a tea room in Bristol called "Pooh Corner."
One odd and humorously observed feature is the glass eye of the bear, hanging down on a loose thread. The oval shape of the painting suggests Shepard thought of it as a sign.
The painting was auctioned in 1977 by Christie's for 2,200. But now this portrait of a magnificent (and inflated) bear is expected to fetch 20,000 to 30,000 ($28,600 to $42,900) when it is auctioned in London Nov. 16 or 17.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society