Things to Do

A New O Museum Exhibit Brings Peter Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and Other Storybook Characters to Life

Bronze sculptures of children's lit faves like Pooh Bear and the Queen of Hearts are now on display.

Photograph by Jessica Ruf.

The O Museum—a menagerie of art and secret doorways inside The Mansion on O Street—has somehow packed even more whimsy onto its filled-to-the-brim property. Now residing at the 44-year-old museum are the bronze likenesses of famous storybook characters, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit—all hailing from the Robert James Studio in the UK.

Together they form a new exhibition called “Through the Looking Glass: Exhibition Of Classic Children’s Literature,” which opened this week and is set to last indefinitely at the unconventional museum where, if you haven’t been before, nearly “everything without a heartbeat” is for sale, says its founder HH Leonards.

The Cheshire Cat can be seen perching outside the O Street Museum. Photograph by Jessica Ruf.

Their journeys to O Street began in May, when Leonards visited the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. There, she and her partner were immediate entranced by the art of James Coplestone and Robert Ellis—three-time, five-star winners of the show—who work to bring classic storybook characters to life.

“It was magic,” says Leonards, who didn’t think twice about bringing their work to the museum. “On the spot, I asked [Coplestone] to exhibit here.” Roughly six months after meeting, their storybook sculptures—all casts made for the museum—are now on display. It’s currently their only exhibition in the U.S.

“Our ambition is to enchant—to take these two dimensional drawings and put them into the three dimensional world and make them look like they are breathing,” Coplestone says. Originally trained as a book illustrator, he found his way into sculpting when he began building 3-D models of the story characters he was illustrating to better visualize them from different angles. “Storytelling is my passion,” he says. “Ever since I was a little boy, my grandfather would sit me on his lap, tell me stories, and draw little characters—that felt like real love I was getting.”

To bring such stories to life, he and Ellis, his 75-year-old colleague and best friend, studied the original prints and drawings of famous storybooks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They then molded the characters in clay—a lengthy process that took two years just for their depiction of Alice—before pouring and painting bronze casts. 

Aside from Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter, you can expect characters from the imaginations of Norman Thelwell, A.A Milne, and Edward Lear. A storybook character of Coplestone’s own creation, the Barefoot King, will also be on display. “He is from one of my children’s stories,” says Coplestone, holding a small barefoot figurine in a bathrobe with a crown. “He’s a character who is tired of responsibility, so he goes into the garden again and plays.”

Photograph by Jessica Ruf.

Tickets to the museum are $30, though several of the sculptures, including the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts, are viewable from the sidewalk in front of the mansion. Others, including water features—such as the Mad Hatter who can be seen pouring himself a cup of tea—are on display inside the mansion’s secret back garden, where you’ll find many more of the characters, including Pooh Bear and Piglet as well as Peter Rabbit.

“[Storytelling] is how you survive,” Leonards says. “The world is not always a pleasant place. And in order to survive and have hope, you have to create fantasies. That’s what these characters do. They put you in that place of love and joy.”

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor