‘Willy, nilly, silly old bear’ is coming to image centre

Photographer Unknown, Harry Colebourn feeding Winnie, Salisbury Plain, England, 1914, gelatin silver print. From The Colebourn Family Archive.  (Ryerson Image Centre)

Photographer unknown, Harry Colebourn feeding Winnie, Salisbury Plain, England, 1914, gelatin silver print. From The Colebourn Family Archive. (Courtesy Ryerson Image Centre)

Winnie the Pooh, the loveable, yellow bear in a red shirt, is coming to the Ryerson Image Centre.

The month-long exhibit, Remembering the Real Winnie, will open Nov. 5.

It showcases the origin of one of literature’s favourite characters. The idea for the character originates from a real Canadian bear that was the mascot of the Canadian war brigade during the First World War.

In 1914, at the onset of the war, a Canadian soldier and veterinarian named Harry Colebourn purchased a cub that he named Winnie. The bear accompanied Colebourn and his fellow troops to England when they went to fight in the war.

“Unlike the carefree life in the Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie the Pooh, the real Winnie was adopted at a time of crucial change and development for Canada, just as hundreds of thousands of men were leaving to participate in a war that would change everything,” says Irene Gammel, one of the curators of the exhibit.

“The idea originated when Lindsay Mattick, an alumna of Ryerson University’s journalism program and the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, offered to make her family’s archive available for the exhibition on this 100th anniversary of World War I,” says Doina Popescu, founding director of the Ryerson Image Centre.

Remembering the Real Winnie will display the full Colebourn family archive for the first time in its entirety.

There will also be an interactive website for people to explore the story online.

The curators believe that the story of the bear that played a role in Canadian history is fascinating, and that the exhibit will attract people of all ages.

The exhibit will contain photographs of the original Winnie at the training camps with Colebourn and other Canadian soldiers. It will also reveal war diary entries and artifacts from 1914 to 1918 that belonged to Colebourn.

“Harry wrote throughout the war on his everyday activities. He reported on his life at the front, and of course he reported on Winnie,” says Gammel.

The project has been put together with help from a group of Ryerson students, faculty and alumni.

“Students have participated in all aspects of this show, from researching the archive, to transcribing the diaries, to designing some of the blow-ups of the images. It’s been a special pleasure to work with the students,” says Gammel.

Remembering the Real Winnie is free to the public and runs until Dec. 7.

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