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April 03, 2006

Christie Davies admires E. H. Shepard's classic drawings of Winnie the Pooh but Shepard was no good at all as a political cartoonist - The Man Who Hated Pooh: The Political Cartoons of E. H. Shepard at the Political Cartoon Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

The Man Who Hated Pooh: The Political Cartoons of E. H. Shepard
Political Cartoon Gallery
32 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS
23rd March - 21st May 2006
Monday - Friday 9am - 5.30pm, Saturday 11am - 5.30pm
Free Admission

E. H. Shepard is best known as the illustrator both of Winnie the Pooh and of The Wind in the Willows, the two most famous stories for children written in English in the twentieth century. Text and illustrations alike are prized because they work at two levels; they provide a sophisticated pleasure for adults and enticing tales with fascinating characters for children.

It is rare to find illustrations in children's books that fit the book let alone match it in quality. Book illustrators are too often conceited, wilful people who have failed at other more prestigious forms of art and are trying to compensate for their low standing. Too many book illustrators despite meagre talents see themselves as "artists" who do not need to know anything about the characters or the story of any book they illustrate; there are convinced that their daubs alone will make it sell, not the text. Too often illustrators are hopelessly illiterate and do not, indeed seemingly cannot, read, let alone understand, the books they are expected to adorn. Any publisher can tell you of battles with these wayward and unpunctual servants whose favourite trick is to produce the illustrations close to publication day when they know it will be difficult to demand changes. They can be as much trouble to an author as a temperamental cameraman can be to a television producer.

That is one reason why we so much appreciate and remember Ernest Shepard's work.

Shepard was not only a remarkably fine artist, a master of line, but one who took trouble to understand the books he illustrated. He was a lone bright star in a profession of white dwarfs. Who can ever forget Shepard's careful arrangement of the players on the bridge where Pooh-sticks was played, the vigour of a bouncy Tigger bouncing a very unbouncy Eeyore, or the drowsy Pooh snoozing under the name of Sanders, a high foxglove and a warm butterfly, half listening to the bustling importunate Rabbit? What could be more memorable than Shepard's drawings of the fall of Owl's house, of Pooh stuck as a towel rack in the entrance to Rabbit's house, of Trespassers W in the snow and the hefferlump trap. Shepard's illustrations have stayed in everyone's imagination along with Milne's stories; he is one of the immortals.

Cursed be the wretched, horrid Disney who cheapened, coarsened and drenched in sucrose the shades of the sacred images of Shepard so as to sell them in Waltmart. Disney was to images what McScrooge McDonald's is to food. As the joke goes:

Is McDonald's more efficient than the human body?

Yes, it takes the human body twenty-four hours to turn food into shit. McDonald's does it in ten minutes.

Disney with his bright yet unstriking colours, over-soft outlines and exaggerated facial expressions is the exact counterpart of McDonald's, tasteless without being nutritious. Look at Shepard's drawings of Pooh – Pooh never smiles. He is a thinking bear. Disney's Pooh does nothing else but smile, he beams like a swindling Televangelist trying to sell you a scented, saponaceous version of God, he grins like Sinclair Lewis' Zenith Boosters boosting Zenith, he smirks as Walt Disney himself must have done when providing a secret blacklist of his colleagues to the FBI. Driving the Reds out of Hollywood was the only worthwhile thing that Walt Disney ever did and even that has proved a dangerous and poisonous precedent in our present age of coercive political correctness.

Disney was the man who substituted schmaltz for honey in Pooh's diet and stuffed him so full of it that his soul burst. Shepard succeeded as an artist, Disney only as a drummer, as a latter day Sam Slick. Now it is rumoured that Disney's artistic heirs are planning to castrate Christopher Robin on the grounds that his tunic, long hair and millinery would look better on a girl; no doubt it will render Piglet's fetishistic obsession with Christopher Robin's blue braces slightly more acceptable to the Creationist suspender-wearers of Kansas. Why bother since Piglet is going to be replaced by a chipmunk anyway to help Disney boost the sales of Pooh in the Muslim world?

Shepard took trouble even with his landscapes – remember Mole and Rat rowing past Toad Hall or Mole lost in the wild wood – as well as with his characters, Toad the begoggled motorist, severe Badger, worried Otter. He was also the great artist of home, of dulce domum, yet without Disney's feet of cloy.

It seems odd then that with all the deserved acclaim given him, that Shepard should so much resent the public's retrospective neglect of his political cartoons in Punch where he was a leading cartoonist from 1921-1953. Yet looking at his work in the current exhibition at the Political Cartoon Gallery we can see why. The Punch cartoons aren't any good. Shepard was a real artist and a superb illustrator but these are neither necessary nor sufficient talents for a good political cartoonist. None of the political cartoons on display here are memorable. Shepard was no good at caricature. His drawings of politicians are neither accurate and well observed, nor masterpieces of distortion. His drawings of Eisenhower, Ernest Bevin and Roosevelt are difficult to recognise and most of his other politicians have to have labels on them to tell you who they are. One of the worst is Russians, Punch 18th April 1956 showing Khruschev and Bulganin dressed up as Etonians rowing a boat and singing:

We'll swing, swing together.
Who on earth are these two happy boaters? They are not Mole and Ratty, so who can they be?

Major Shepard's drawings of politicians were not nasty enough, he could not convey their villainy and incompetence. One of his few accurate and successful cartoons is Full Circle, Punch, 8th March, 1944. The face of Stalin looks down from a cinema screen. In the front row of the stalls are the leaders of Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, the countries that had fought alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front and were now thinking of quitting. The Finn gets up and puts on his coat – it is the end of Finland's 1941-1944 "Continuation War" in which the Finns tried to win back what had been seized from them by Soviet aggression in 1940. The others wriggle uneasily and think about leaving. It is a wonderful and accurate drawing of Stalin but a benign one, nothing to do with the man who was really scaring Hitler's little helpers.

Likewise, one almost feels sorry for the leaders of Vichy in They Shall Pass, Punch 28th May 1941, as they salute in Nazi style the Germans who are marching in triumph through Paris displaying a flag on which a swastika crosses out the cap of liberty. Darlan in naval uniform has to hold up the gaga Pétain's drooping arm with his left hand. Pétain is but a sad, servile remnant of the "Ils ne passeront pas" hero of Verdun. The characteristically French-looking Pierre Laval was a gift to cartoonists, but a gift spurned by Shepard. Human sympathy for the French has taken over at an inappropriate time.

Look too at Shades of Success, Punch 18th February 1939, which shows Franco looking over a map of Spain on a table as the Spanish Civil War comes to an end. Now he has only to kill the anarchists in Barcelona. The ghosts of Hitler and Mussolini look over his shoulders. It is wonderfully drawn – but where are the villains? How Franco would have loved that drawing.

Shepard's best cartoons are often of democratic reformers at their point of success. Here is Neville Chamberlain in The Pied Piper of Downing Street, Punch 6th October 1937, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he inaugurated a campaign for National Health. Here he is leading, happy, smiling children away from a smoky factory town into a country path flanked by trees and rabbits. It is peace in our time. The ribbons on Chamberlain's coat say welfare, medical services and dental treatment. The right style for Pooh - but for a political cartoon?

Shepard is equally congratulatory and celebratory in The Butler's Dream, Punch 24th December 1943, drawn just before R. A. Butler, then Minister of Education, pushed through the 1944 Education Act - the Act that briefly gave Britain a decent educational system, one that we have since destroyed. Shepard even has a wise and happy owl in the sky. Wol is accompanying Minerva.

The exhibition ends with a selection of Shepard's book illustrations including Three Egyptian Maidens, Chinese Dragons and best of all a doorway for Lady Fortescue's Perfume in Provence 1937. Classical in form, flanked by long barred windows, the door opens inwards into darkness. A hot dog snoozes in the sunshine on the steep steps. You could be there. He could even teach Osbert Lancaster a thing or two. Shepard was a superb draughtsman, an artist, a great book illustrator. But he lacked the qualities required of a political cartoonist and Muggeridge was right to sack him.

What does it matter that Shepard failed as a cartoonist? A. A. Milne failed as a writer of humorous plays and sketches for adults. In his own day he was fashionable, popular and no doubt wealthy but none of his sketches are worth reading today nor will his plays ever be successfully revived. When Evyenios Trivizas and I came to write the encyclopaedia entry on Milne as a humorist, we listed his other work but that was all. The entire entry had to be about Pooh, Milne's one great creation. The rest came down with malice. Like Shepard, Milne resented being remembered only as a writer for children yet when you are as good as he was, why regret?

One is reminded of Conan Doyle's attempt to drop Sherlock Holmes at the height of his popularity and down a waterfall because he wanted to be known for his tedious historical fiction such as Sir Nigel, The White Company and Micah Clark with their emphasis on the irrelevant accuracy of trivial material detail. How on earth could he regard these boringly boring-Loring researched costume yarns as superior to the stories based on the forensic observations of the well-cocained Sherlock Holmes. The same may be said of Sir Arthur Sullivan's longing to be a "serious" composer rather than one half of the glorious Gilbert and Sullivan. Sullivan on his own hums but no-one hums him.

Works of amusement and enchantment are enough in and of themselves, if they are done with subtlety and sophistication. They can last for ever as a national cultural treasure. It is a mistake to think that Shepard, Milne, Doyle, or Sullivan needed the dignity of heavy political, historical or musical seriousness. Let us prize Shepard for what he was and ignore what he wanted to be.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, Talybont, Y Lolfa, 2006, a collection of humorous stories for children and adults alike.

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Shepherd a 'lone bright star..."? Goodness me, Dr Davies! You dismiss as 'white drawves' Arthur Rackham? And NC Wyeth? And Edmund Dulac? And John R Neill? Really? I am happy if you grew up liking the Pooh books, but it seems somewhat restrictive to claim Shepherd as the only illustrator of any merit. There is more to children's book illustration than Disney, Pooh and the Wind in the Willows.

Posted by: s masty at April 4, 2006 11:32 AM
There is more to children's book illustration than Disney, Pooh and the Wind in the Willows.

¡Señor Masty! How can you mention Disney and Pooh with parity in the same sentence! You should approve of this article – it is just the propaganda we need for the Lucha Popular contra la Disneficación.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 4, 2006 06:25 PM

Disney cartoons are now being boycotted by the Southern Baptists, the Concerned Women for America , Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights due to the absence of family values in Winnie the Pooh. They have been especially critical of the close relationship between Pooh and Piglet, (a much younger and vulnerable creature ) who end up living in the same household.
Disney used to produce wholesome family entertainment before he took on the Milne stories. Dr Davies's wisecracks about braces-fetishes and going down with Alice are an uncalled for frivolity in the face of the moral deterioration of Disney due to these degenerate influences.

Posted by: David Williams at April 4, 2006 10:39 PM

I am aware of protests against Disney, the best-known perhaps being been the nine-year boycott led by the Southern Baptist Convention against Walt Disney Co. for hosting Gay Days, a week of gay-themed activities at Walt Disney World in Orlando. That boycott ended in June 2005. However, statements like:

especially critical of the close relationship between Pooh and Piglet

seem more likely to come from one of the "Septic Skeptic" sites which infest the web.

For myself, I quite enjoy Disney Eigenprodukte such as the Aristocats or Toy Story, but they should keep their hands / paws / tentacles (?) off other people's work such as Pooh or historical figures such as Pocahontas.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 7, 2006 07:24 PM

You may change your view on H.E.Sheperd as a Political Cartoonist after seeing a Cartoon on Hitler in my Blog Rarebooks and Clippings

Posted by: S.G.A.Raju at November 7, 2010 04:43 PM
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