Reading with Rose: Winnie-the-Pooh

90 Years in the Hundred-Acre Wood

The most recognized book in Rose Standish Nichols’ library is, without a doubt, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Few visitors have passed through its home on the second shelf of the third floor landing bookcase without noticing its bright pink spine. For those of you who have—and those of you who will—you may be interested to know that this year marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of the first Winnie-the-Pooh book.

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First published in 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh was the first of Milne’s stories that officially introduced readers to Winnie. The inspiration for this lovable teddy bear came from a stuffed-animal, bought at Harrods luxury department store, that belonged to Milne’s son. Milne’s stuffed-animal collection soon grew to include the inspirations for Pooh’s friends, and they now live permanently in the New York Public Library. Christopher Robin Milne—the namesake for the boy who travels with Pooh in the Enchanted Forest—named his stuffed teddy bear ‘Winnie’ after a black Canadian bear he had seen in at the zoo. Winnie-the-Pooh was so successful that it overshadowed much of A.A. Milne’s other work (including adult fiction), but he did appreciate that his stories resonated with children and adults. His son, Christopher Robin Milne, became a successful bookseller and writer. [1]

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A.A. Milne; Christopher Robin Milne by Howard Coster, 1926. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Rose’s edition of Winnie-the-Pooh is the 203rd, printed in 1950 in New York and published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. If you have come for a tour with us, you might wonder how Rose came to acquire this book. Unfortunately, this will remain a mystery for visitors and staff, as we have no record of how or why Rose acquired it. She would have been aged 78 in 1950, well past childhood. Perhaps Rose was one of those readers whom Milne was referring to when he said:

“These stories are about these good companions having wonderful times getting in and out of trouble. It is all very exciting and, really, quite thrilling, no matter how young or how old you may be.” [2]

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One of the book’s illustrations by Ernest Howard Shepard.

[1] Thwaite, Ann. “Milne, Alan Alexander (1882–1956).” Ann Thwaite In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2012.

[2] Milne, A.A. Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.1950.

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Unitarian in the Winter and Episcopalian in Summer

In Rose Standish Nichols’ parlor, a room that was home to much intellectual, political, and religious discourse, hangs a painting depicting Mary, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. The oil painting is a nineteenth century interpretation of a common scene in religious art during the Renaissance, the rural landscape featuring the Holy Family in the foreground and a shepherd with his flock in the background. The work is unsigned and the artist is unknown, though the nineteenth century painter was likely studying similar scenes by Raphael, Leonardo, Giorgione and Titian in the sixteenth century. 

 

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Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with Saint Ann, c. 1503, The Louvre.

 

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Titian, Madonna and Child with Female Saint Ann and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1530s, Kimbell Art Museum.

Rose’s belief system has often been the subject of discussion, especially with such a religiously charged painting displayed in a very public room in her home. However, by all accounts Rose Standish Nichols was not a traditionally religious person. Her friend Southard Menzel wrote, in an article entitled Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, that Rose considered herself, “Unitarian in the winter and Episcopalian in summer” simply based on the fact that King’s Chapel, the family’s local Boston church, was Unitarian and the neighborhood congregation close to their summer home in New Hampshire was Episcopalian. [1] The Nichols family attended King’s Chapel when the girls were young and according to Margaret, the family had their own pew “in the front row of the balcony near the choir.” [2]

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Interior of King’s Chapel, Emmet Collection of Manuscrips Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library.

Later in her life, however, Rose became interested in the principles of the Bahai, a faith system that advocates for peace and unity, which resonated with Rose, a committed pacifist.

“To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.” –Abdu’l-Bahá [3]

Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the religion’s founder, was an acquaintance of Rose’s and according to Southard Menzel, he visited her home and was “given a platform at her house to introduce his doctrine (‘In that corner between the fireplace and the window’).” [4]

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Abdu’l-Bahá

Despite Rose’s personal belief system, she was still fascinated by the culture and iconography of the Catholic church. Her travel through Europe often included visits to churches and cathedrals where she was very taken with the traditions as well as the aesthetics.

“We have seen larger picture galleries, but no paintings as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and those of Raphael, called his Stanze.  We took a last look at them today on our way to the Pope’s auto-chamber, where Margaret and I left a rosary for Bridget with the chamberlain to be blessed by the Pope.  We inquired our way of the Swiss guard, who seem to be everywhere in the Vatican, their orange and black costumes are striking if not picturesque.”

Rose writing to her father Arthur from Rome, November 18, 1891.

Rose also took a specific interest in Catholic monasteries while researching her book, Italian Pleasure Gardens. Her 1928 book includes an entire chapter on “The Cloister Garth”where she explores the horticulture and ornamentation of Italian monasteries.

“The outer walls of the cloister, back of the columns, were covered with paintings…Scenes suggested by descriptions in the Old and New Testaments, or episodes in the lives of saints were chosen as affording religious inspiration to the monks, who would have turned away their eyes in horror from the flippant representations that amused the pleasure-loving Pompeians.” [5]  

Several objects in her collection also suggest her fascination with religious objects including , books, postcards, tiles and even a bust believed to be a reliquary.

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Italian wooden bust, 18th century, possibly used as a reliquary.
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Dutch earthenware tile, 19th century, showing the story of Matthew 9, “Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man.”

She collected dozens of postcards with Catholic iconography, including twenty-five that depict the Holy Family.

Over thirty titles in her library reflect her curiosity in the church, including books of poetry, theology, stories of the saints and the Bible given to her by her father with both their names inscribed in their own handwriting:

“Arthur H. Nichols Boston Jan. 1, 1852 A present from his Mother

Rose S. Nichols from her Father Arthur H. Nichols”

 

Rose Standish Nichols may not have been a conventionally religious person but she was thoughtful about religion both in aesthetics and in theology. Her collecting practices and her proud display of religious art show her affinity for Christian iconography, but it was in her discussions with people she met throughout her life where her fascination with faith becomes clear. Southard Menzel told a story of Rose’s experience encountering a Cardinal on a steamer ship on his way to Rome:

“After much talk and no conviction, Rose had said to him: ‘I suppose you think I am going to Hell.’

‘Not necessarily so Miss Nichols,’ said O’Connell.

‘How can that be?’ asked Rose.

‘Well God may possibly pardon you on the basis of “invincible ignorance,”’ was his reply. 

Rose was charmed with this decisions, and apparently thought the term was invented for her. She loved to think that some day, because of, or in spite of, her ‘invincible ignorance,’ she might continue the pleasant discussion with his Eminence in Heaven.” [6]

 

[1] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[2] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer Nichols. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Taipei: Literature House, 1965. 25.

[3] Esslemont, J. E. Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era; an Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Pub. Trust, 1970.

[4] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

[5] Nichols, Rose Standish. “The Cloister Garth.” Italian Pleasure Gardens. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1928. 25.

[6] Menzel, Southard. Sketches of the Life and Character of Rose Standish Nichols, Artist, Collector, Social Reformer, Museum Founder, 1975. Unpublished work.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.