A Bear of Very Little Brain

… but the best bear in the world.

He first appeared in one of the forty-five poems in A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young in 1924, but on October 13, 1926 one of the most beloved bears of childhood – and for some of us adulthood – came into his own when Winnie-the-Pooh was published.  The Bear of Little Brain was to appear again two years later in The House at Pooh Corner (1928)  and in eleven of the poems in Now We Are Six (1927).

Christopher Robin’s toys that were eventually to become Tigger, Kanga, Winnie, Eeyore, and Piglet.  Roo has been lost and the characters of Owl and Rabbit were created by Milne and the Disney Studios added another when they gained control of the stories.  They currently reside at the New York Public Library.

Much has been written about the origins of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends – how he got his name, the setting in Ashdown Forest, what inspired Milne to write his stories, and the fame and discomfort success brought to Christopher Milne.  There is even a new movie that purports to tell the “untold story” of how the books came to be written – though you have to wonder how much of the story really is left to be told.

Whatever the inspiration or origins may be for the past 90 years Christopher Robin’s little bear has been enchanting children and reminding adults of the joys of their own childhood.  For 90 years Milne’s words and E. H.. Shepard‘s illustrations have taken us to Pooh Corner, The Enchanted Place and introduced us Poohsticks  Sadly several generations of children are now growing up with the “cutesy” Disney version as their point of reference rather than the gentler, less garish, less knowing – dare I say more English – stories that Milne wrote and that Shepard captured in his drawings.

22424288_10155473921088880_8676013321260831422_oTo celebrate that collaboration the Victoria and Albert Museum is opening an exhibition – on my birthday, wouldn’t you know! – featuring sketches, letters, photographs, cartoons, and fashion from the partnership.  A left click on that little passage from Winnie-the-Pooh (above left) will take you to their website and a few of the delightful things that will be on display.


Though I have quoted it once before I do so again with no apologies.  I don’t believe anyone has ever captured the bittersweetness of leaving behind childhood as beautifully as this final passage from The House At Pooh Corner.  And I have never read it without tearing up just a wee bit.

Suddenly Christopher Robin began to tell Pooh about some of the things: People called Kings and Queens and something called Factors, and a place called Europe, and an island in the middle of the sea where no ships came, and how you make a Suction Pump (if you want to), and when Knights were Knighted, and what comes from Brazil. And Pooh, his back against one of the sixty-something trees and his paws folded in front of him, said “Oh!” and “I didn’t know,” and thought how wonderful it would be to have a Real Brain which could tell you things. And by-and-by Christopher Robin came to an end of the things, and was silent, and he sat there looking out over the world, and wishing it wouldn’t stop.

But Pooh was thinking too, and he said suddenly to Christopher Robin:

“Is it a very Grand thing to be an Afternoon, what you said?”

“A what?” said Christopher Robin lazily, as he listened to something else.

“On a horse,” explained Pooh.

“A Knight?”

“Oh, was that it?” said Pooh. “I thought it was a– Is it as Grand as a King and Factors and all the other things you said?”

“Well, it’s not as grand as a King,” said Christopher Robin, and then, as Pooh seemed disappointed, he added quickly, “but it’s grander than Factors.”

“Could a Bear be one?”

“Of course he could!” said Christopher Robin. “I’ll make you one.” And he took a stick and touched Pooh on the shoulder, and said, “Rise, Sir Pooh de Bear, most faithful of all my Knights.”

So Pooh rose and sat down and said “Thank you,” which is a proper thing to say when you have been made a Knight, and he went into a dream again, in which he and Sir Pump and Sir Brazil and Factors lived together with a horse, and were faithful Knights (all except Factors, who looked after the horse) to Good King Christopher Robin . . . and every now and then he shook his head, and said to himself, “I’m not getting it right.” Then he began to think of all the things Christopher Robin would want to tell him when he came back from wherever he was going to, and how muddling it would be for a Bear of Very Little Brain to try and get them right in his mind. “So, perhaps,” he said sadly to himself, “Christopher Robin won’t tell me any more,” and he wondered if being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things.

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?” said Pooh.

“When I’m–when– Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m–you know–when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just Me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

“Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh.”

“That’s good,” said Pooh.

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a little.

“How old shall I be then?”


Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I–if I’m not quite” he stopped and tried again –“. Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

“Understand what?”

“Oh, nothing.” He laughed and jumped to his feet. “Come on!”

“Where?” said Pooh.

“Anywhere,” said Christopher Robin.

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

The House at Pooh Corner (1928)
Written by A. A. Milne
Illustrated by E. H. Shepard

This post was inspired by my FaceBook friend Christopher and is for him and all my friends who though they have put away childish things still hold childhood in their hearts.

On this day in 1656: Massachusetts enacts the first punitive legislation against the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). The marriage of church-and-state in Puritanism makes them regard the Quakers as spiritually apostate and politically subversive.

Eastern Treasures

In which more treasures from the V&A are explored.

The South Asia collections at the Victoria and Albert hold some 60,000 objects including textiles, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics; it ranges from items as small as plugs for pierced ears to full size statues of Buddhist deities.  We spent so much time in the Jameel (Islamic) and Nehru (South Asia – Sub-Continent) Rooms that there was no opportunity to see the Himalayan galleries next door.  However as we walked down the corridor we did catch glimpses of some remarkable works of South East Asian art from Nepal and Sri Lanka.

This copper ritual crown set with imitation stones was crafted by an unknown artist in Nepal and the inscription dates it to Nepal Samvat 797 or 1677 CE.  It would have been worn by a hereditary Vajracharya priest of the Kathmandu Valley.   Originally an order of celibate Buddhists that vow was forsaken by Nepalese adherents to the tenets of Vajrayana in the 13th century.vajra
The priests command the highest caste in the Newar Buddhist communities of the Kathmandu Valley.  They are highly revered as teachers and upholders of  Vajrayana, one of the three major branches of Buddhism.  The sect takes its name from the ritual Vajra (above right) which traces its origins to Indra, the Hindu deity of rain and thunder.  For Buddhists the Vajra symbolizes the properties of a diamond (indestructibility) and a thunderbolt (irresistible force), and figures as a ritual tool in many ceremonies.

This ceremonial ladle dates from the 1700s and was created by an unknown artist in Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka.  From 1592 until 1815 the Kingdom survived attempts by first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British to conquer and colonize the area. In 1815 the nobility overthrew their King and recognized George III as their ruler and came under British “protection”.

The ladle was for sacrificial use. The silver bowl is in the shape of a coconut with chased ornamentation.  The carved ivory handle bears the figure of a deity (?) or priest (?) and is partially encrusted with jewels and gold inlay.

There was a long tradition, dating back to the 7th century, of Newar craftsmen from the Kathmandu Valley working for wealthy Tibetan patrons and this Avalokitesvara from the 14th century is a stunning example of that work – again by an unknown artist.

Cast in copper, gilded and bejewelled it represents the Bodhisattvas in his popular manifestation as Padmapani or Lotus Bearer.  Padmapani is one of the enlightened beings who voluntarily postponed passing into nirvana in order to help others gain salvation.  His right hand is in the lowered gesture of granting wishes and his left is cast to hold the stem of a lotus or padma – perhaps a living flower or a missing gilded representation.

The stillness and serenity of the figure speaks to the state of harmony which the Boddhisattva aspires to achieve.  The sensuous contrapposto of his sleek, androgynous body indicates his ties to the human world.

Displayed opposite Avalokitesvara the goddess Sitatara (the White Tara) was widely worshipped in Nepal and Tibet.  She can be seen as the female manifestation of the Padmapani.

Painted and gilded copper, and set with semi-precious stones, turquoise, imitation rubies and lapis lazuli the figure dates to the 14th century.  Once again it is the work of an unknown Nepalese artist, created for Tibetan worshippers.

Looking back over these photos and doing a bit of research on the V&A site I once again became aware of the vast amount of art there is to see in that one gallery alone. It may necessitate another trip to London in an effort to see more of the treasures. Sigh – what we do for art!

On this day in 1930:  After the mysterious death of Empress Zewditu, Haile Selassie is proclaimed emperor of Ethiopia.

Eastern Treasures

In which the treasures of the V and A are explored.

I know I am saying nothing new but I’m sure it’s possible to spend every day for a year wandering through the Victoria and Albert Museum and still not see more than half the treasures on offer.  Aside from the special exhibitions – I’m still grinding my teeth at being there just before the Opus Anglicanum opened – the regular (if such a mundane word can be used) collection is a never-ending source of wonderment.

We had an hour or two between breakfast and our luncheon date with David and Diplomate on that exceptional Sunday back in September and as our walk to the restaurant took us along Cromwell Road we decided to pop in for a look around.  I had never been into the Asian galleries and so we headed for the Nehru and adjacent Jameel and Himalayan Rooms on the Ground Floor.

Over the next little while I thought I’d post some of the pictures I took of the remarkable examples of Islamic, Indian and Far Eastern cultures that caught my fancy.

The Mount of the Good Shepherd

Though we tend to think of the Sub-Continent as the Anglo-India of the Maharajahs and the Raj the small state of Goa on the West Coast was under Portuguese rule for over four and a half centuries.  In 1510 the Portuguese defeated the ruling Bijapur sultan Yousuf Adil Shah and began an occupation that was not to end until 1961 – a full fourteen years after Great Britain had granted India independence.

“Goa fortissima India urbs in Christianorum potestatem anno salutis 1509 deuenit”
“Goa, the most powerful city in India became Christian in 1509”
Possibly the earliest known depiction of Goa – 1572

At one point in its history Goa’s population was chiefly Roman Catholic and a display in the Nehru Room is dedicated to small but intricately beautiful ivory carvings of that period.  Often gilded and polychromed, they were created by unknown Indian artisans steeped in the centuries-old craft of ivory carving.

Though the main thrust of Portuguese colonization was commerce ships bound for the Indes were required by the Padroado with the Holy See to carry missionaries on their voyages.  From the earliest days of the occupation the four main missionary Orders (Augustinians, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans) came with the traders, built churches and worked to bring Catholic Christianity to the Sub-continent. These ivory images were commissioned to help in their evangelical efforts. In an effort to enforce dogma the Church demanded that only baptisted artists could work for churches.  However such was the private demand for these ivory statues that unconverted artists had a ready market for export to Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Americas.

What is most remarkable is that despite the control the Church had over the subject the iconography of Indian art found its way into many of the pieces.  No where is this more apparent than in carvings of Do Monte do Bom Pastor (The Mount of the Good Shepherd) – a subject that appears to be particular to ecclesiastical art of Goa and that reappeared constantly in the ivories produced there.

The iconography of The Mount of the Good Shepherd is a mix of figures from Christian mythology with animals, plants and flowers of the Sub-Continent.  The figures often have an Asian caste to their features and poses are reminiscent of  Indian temple carvings.  Often Christ the Good Shepherd is shown asleep, recalling images of the Buddha in Indian art.  Typically he has a gourd of water on a belt at his waist and he holds a lamb on his lap while another lamb nestles on his shoulder.

There are several other constants in these intricate tiered carvings – a fountain providing life giving water to the sheep and at the base, a jar of ointment beside her, Mary Magdalene, the repentant sinner, reads a book. I was a bit puzzled by that detail but research revealed that in many Medieval  and Renaissance depictions the Magdalene, absolved of her past sins, serenely contemplates a book of scripture.  Often Saints, particularly those associated with the evangelizing orders, with their attributes are represented in the tiers of the Mount.

The unknown Indian artisans who created these works also made carvings of the Virgin, various saints and canonical scenes but they were often just copies of European models for export and lack any local influence.  However the Mount of the Good Shepherd was the perfect representation of the Gospels for the new converts.  The symbolism of the Crucifix – a dead body on the cross – was only warily accepted in Indian culture; however the idea of a benevolent Shepherd, like Krishna and Buddha, providing life giving water (the Eucharist) to feed his flock and the natural world reflected the cultural norms for Indians who had turned to the Christian faith.

An devotional image melding the two cultures, the Mount of the Good Shepherd was once the perfect summation of the Catholic faith and the Gospel for India.

On this day in 1675:  John Flamsteed is appointed the first Astronomer Royal of England.

The Sunday Christ

As my friends Irini and Fotis mulled over whither Fotis really needed a Darth Vader helmet or a feather boa (sensible boy he bought neither) I wandered out of the Hollywood Costume Exhibition Shop at the Victoria and Albert into a small gallery next door. Though it is located a good deal away from the splendid Medieval Galleries it houses a few lovely pieces of religious art of mixed origins from the period. As often happens I focused in on one lovely piece of the carver’s art.

This time the medium wasn’t wood but alabaster and as is often the case with works of the period, this figure is dated circa 1500, the artist who created it is unknown. And until I saw this piece I must admit that the subject was unknown to me: The Sunday Christ.  The card in the case explained that this was a unique work probably from Southern England or Wales and was meant not as a devotional object but as an admonition to those who wounded Christ by working on the Sabbath.

Normally the figure of the Sunday Christ appears in paintings and frescoes, often larger than life, and seems to have been particular to southern England, Cornwall, Wales, and the Alpine regions of France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia and northern Italy.   Frequently situated at the entrance to a church the painting or fresco portrayed “The Man of Sorrows” acquainted not with grief but with the grievous wounds caused by the tools of workmen who had chosen not to to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”  In more than one representation the blood from the wounds have a particularly gory aspect which causes me to wonder why it didn’t become the subject for more Southern artists who seem to revel in suffering with a capital “S”.   It was hoped that in regarding the Sunday Christ (with or without the gore) the pious could find assurance that they were not amongst those re-crucifying Christ and the repentant would see what their act of impiety had led to.  I’m not sure what effect it would have on those who continued to work as they wouldn’t have darkened the door step of the church to view the suffering their sinful behavoir had wrought.

Many of the tools that are inflicting wounds on The Sunday Christ are agrarian in nature – suggesting that this figure was carved as a warning to farm labourers in the surrounding district.  Which church it was created for is unknown as are the details of how it found its way to Portugal before being acquired by the V and A. 

There is a theory that in the wake of the Black Death the Holy days of obligation had increased to a point where if craftsmen, labourers and farmhands had abstained from work on all of the required days that nothing would have been done.  In many cases work was necessary, if crops were to be planted or brought in, buildings to be constructed or water to be drawn that work continue despite it being the Sabbath.  It was very much a case of “damned if you do, damned (or starved) if you don’t”. 

It is highly unusual for The Sunday Christ to be worked in stone or wood and this little figure is the only known representation in this form in England. The figure was probably stored in a shuttered tabernacle close to the door of the church and may even have been carried in processions on one of the many Feast Days or Days of Obligation.  Perhaps it was when viewed in those processions that the shame of working and inflicting new wounds on their Lord overcame those labouring and they threw down their tools and did their duty.

Thought I have been a trifle tongue in cheek about the purpose of this little figurine I can recall the time was here in Canada when Sunday was indeed a welcome day of rest.  And it was very much the same in our area of Roma and many places in Germany and Austria that we visited.  Sunday was a day to go to church, if you were so inclined, visit the family, stroll through the park or go to lunch with friends.  All of which fit perfectly in to the canonical command “to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.” and none of which would have contributed to the suffering of this little Christ figure.

30 December – 1919: Lincoln’s Inn in London, England, UK admits its first female bar student.

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Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat Where Have You Been?

Well actually I’ve been to London if not to visit the Queen then to do quite a lot of things in four short days.

This delightful lithograph in the lobby of the National Theatre proves that
many cats can indeed look at a Queen!  Sadly I didn’t make a note of the artist’s
name or the title and the National website gives no clues.

I first visited London when I was 19 in 1969. Up until then the farthest I had been away from home was New York one Christmas with my mother (when we had the embarrassing scene with the unsuccessful attempted to “poison” me with “uncooked” hamburger at Schrafft’s Restaurant) and Nassau with my friend Eugene (who saved me from drowning two hours after we arrived and has suffered with a bad back ever after). You would think that those two episodes alone might have killed any urge I had to travel but no, that May I set off on the first of many voyages to London; and I was to cross the Atlantic once again three months later en route to Austria.  In those heady years of high salaries, working for the airlines and living at home if I had been eligible for air points (if such a thing had existed) I would have had enough to do around the world within a year or two. The trips were frequent and mainly to Europe and many of the trips meant time spent in London – sometimes only for a day or two.

The reason for that first trip was opera – The Glyndebourne Festival and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Then there was the theatre – Love for Love with Geraldine McEwan at the National Theatre (still housed in the Old Vic back then), Sarah Miles and Eileen Atikens in Vivat Vivat Regina and a trip down to Chichester to see the incomparable Alistair Sim and a very young Patricia Routledge in Pinero’s The Magistrate

Well 43 years later I arrived at Heathrow a week ago Thursday past for a few days and the principal motivation once again was opera – plus ca change!!

The Royal Opera House was staging a rare revival of Meyerbeer’s Robert la diable  – the last time the infamous ghostly ballet of debauched nuns danced on that stage was 1890.   And in one of those strange little quirks of serendipity the National Theatre (in their South Bank home) was presenting The Magistrate with John Lithgow as the beset-upon Mr Posket.  Did I mention “plus ca change”????

Not only the shops in Mayfair were dressed up for the season;
though this little girl was not at all impressed with the Candy Cane.

And if there’s a Candy Cane man, you just know there had to be
a Candy Kiss on roller skates nearby – after all it is London.

I really meant to go and check that the crows were still at the Tower after
encountering this rather exotic outfit at the M and S check-out. However the Russian gentleman
with the fat wallet with her seemed rather pleased with his lady so….  chaqu’un as they say.

There were, of course, quite a few added attractions – my dear Fotis was coming in from Athens for the opera and we had seats together (quite by accident) in the front row of the amphitheatre; Chantal, a colleague from Rome was on temporary duty at the High Commission and I had an invitation to stay with her and a night out at the National; and David and the Diplomate had issued an invitation to Sunday lunch.  It was going to be a full four days.

Although the landscapes don’t quite marry up it is possible that the artist intended the portraits of Ashraf ‘Ali Khan and his mistress Muttubby to be a facing each other in a book. Dip Chad is one of the few artists of the period of whom much is known and his style is distinctive for its experimentation and subtle use of colour.  For some reason the portrait of Muttubby reminded me of Magritte – funny the associations our minds make.
From the catalogue for MUGHAL INDIA, British Library

But of course being London there were all the serendipitous events that pop-up in what is still after all these visits one of the most exciting cities on the surface of this ever shrinking globe.  At 1430 on Thursday afternoon Fotis phoned to say that he had an extra ticket for the (sold-out) Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V and A and to get my lily-white over there by 1530 if I wanted to see it.  And see it I did – and met his friend Irini Kyriakidou who, as well as being a very beautiful and talented soprano in her own right, just happens to be married to Bryan Hymel who was singing the eponymous Robert.  Which then led to an opportunity to go backstage after the performance followed by a late night dinner in Covent Garden with Irini, Bryan, Fotis and their friend Sascha.  An e-mail exchange with David about Sunday’s lunch led to an unplanned trip to the British Library to see a splendid exhibition of books and illustrations from the Moghul Period in India.  And Sunday lunch as well as bringing the delights of a perfectly cooked joint of lamb placed me in the company of David, Diplomate and Edward, a fascinating gentleman with an equally fascinating history.

And my faithful travelling companion Sidd accompanied me to Pink to look at shirts but frankly was more interested in getting his photo taken with Santa.  I mean where else but London would you find a Pink Santa?

Some how I managed to squeeze a trip to Seldfridge’s and a quick pop by Fortnum and Mason to see their very disappointing windows this year – no moving figures and more advertisement than anything – with a stop behind them at Pink on Jermyn Street.  To make up for the disappointment of not spending £175.00 on that great shirt I headed back to the V and A again.  A walk-around their remarkable Medieval Galleries, a look-in at the Raphael’s and a saunter through the English Renaissance displays was almost as good as retail therapy.

You could almost miss this beautiful little 13th century ivory fragment from Northern England in the midst of all the glories of the Medieval galleries at the V and A.  Carved from a walrus tusk it depicts Joseph of Aramathea supporting the body of Christ as it is removed from the cross.  Strange how a small piece of ivory can be turned into something so moving.

A full but strangely not exhausting few days that proved that even after the many visits I am very much not “tired of life”.

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson to Boswell,
September 20, 1777.

22 December -1890: Cornwallis Valley Railway begins operation between Kentville and Kingsport, Nova Scotia.

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