Surrey artist EH Shepard - from Winnie-the-Pooh to illustrations of war
PUBLISHED: 20:40 03 December 2015 | UPDATED: 20:53 03 December 2015
Best-known for his beautiful illustrations from Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, Surrey artist EH Shepard also embraced a very different theme in his work, as a new book about him reveals. Helen Gazeley brings us the story
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2015
Piglet, Eeyore and the Bear of Very Little Brain himself – it’s rare to find a child or adult who doesn’t know the characters from Winnie-the-Pooh – and inextricably entwined with AA Milne’s much-loved stories, first published in 1926, are the charming illustrations by EH Shepard.
If his scenes have a particularly homely feel to Surrey residents, it’s because he is believed to have taken inspiration from the countryside where he lived, first in Shamley Green and then around Long Meadow, a large house he had built near Guildford.
A rural landscape also provides the background to his characterisations of Ratty, Mole and Toad from The Wind in the Willows, which Shepard illustrated from 1930, with author Kenneth Grahame famously telling him: “I’m glad you’ve made them real.”
However, Ernest Howard Shepard, to give him his full name, regarded them as only a minor part of his output, and Shepard’s War, a new book compiled by author James Campbell, explores the very different output from a man now almost exclusively associated with children’s illustrations.
Featuring over a hundred pieces of original, largely unpublished, artwork, the compendium follows Shepard’s experiences through World War One.
“Essentially, the idea came about through the realisation that there was a significant amount of artwork by Shepard about the First World War that had never before been published,” says Campbell. “The project germinated in 2012 and we decided to publish on the anniversary of Shepard’s going to war.”
An artist at war
Familiar with Surrey from childhood holidays, Shepard moved from London’s Blackheath to Shamley Green, near Guildford, when newly married in 1904. By the time war broke out in 1914, he and his wife, Florence, whom he’d met as a fellow student at the Royal Academy, were living with their two children, Graham (seven) and Mary (five), in The Red Cottage, which still stands today.
Already, the situation in Europe presented him with a challenge. He regularly contributed to the satirical magazine Punch, and the editor requested cartoons that were not about the impending war. Shepard replied that it was very hard to think about anything else but in typical style managed to uncover humour in unlikely subjects.
Before long, despite worries about the financial and emotional impact on his family of his signing up, he applied for a commission in the Royal Artillery – partly because of a long fascination with guns, but also because he thought his skills with a pencil would be useful. He was right. Shepard’s papers reveal tactical drawings, necessary for accurate bombardment. And in autumn 1916 he undertook, as he described it, “a drawing job for the Intelligence Department”, a commission that seemed to require a record of everything from the layout of the dugout to the devastation of the surrounding area.
Not only did sketching offer an escape from life at war, but he continued to send work home, too, no allowance being made for his circumstances. Even in the midst of the Somme in July 1916, he received a letter from his agent, chasing him for an overdue commission.
A different view
It is the lighter illustrations from this time, some destined for Punch, that arguably reveal the most. He donated a number of these – as well as many personal letters that also illustrate his irrepressible humour – to the University of Surrey before he died in 1976 aged 96. Today, archivist Sharon Maxwell says they provide a fascinating insight into life on the front line. “While we get the official version of the war on television, this lets us see a side that was lost,” she says. “Day-to-day stories; him and his mates; what they were doing; what was happening. I can’t believe how everyday it was for them.”
Campbell agrees. “It gives another dimension. What we’ve seen during the centenary has been about the politics, the destruction, the huge loss of life. This brings a perspective around the everyday, the ordinary – in a tea room, sheltering in a trench.”
Initially, it seems strange that these illustrations have only just come to light but Shepard distributed his work among several museums and universities. “The situation was that each party had a certain amount of material and didn’t realise that others had some too,” says Campbell. “Until recently, we didn’t realise there was a large body of work.”
Combine this with Shepard’s typical reaction of a returning soldier and it’s easy to see how the work has languished. His granddaughter, who writes a foreword to the book, cannot remember him even mentioning the war. After accounts for the Royal Artillery War Commemoration Book in 1919, he never wrote about it again.
“This tells us a number of stories,” says Campbell. “He was awarded an MC for his bravery but he talks about other people’s courage. He had a low-key and self-deprecating approach to bravery. He himself was very active during the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres, and experienced near-death and injury on a number of occasions.”
In fact, so fortunate was Shepard to escape death that others regarded him as a lucky mascot. “Taylor and Clarke always came with me and had a habit of sleeping as near me as possible,” wrote Shepard. “One shell might finish us off together if we bunched like that and I had explained this to Taylor whose only reply was that they felt safer when they were near me.”
After returning home in 1919, Shepard remained in Shamley Green until 1927, when he moved to Long Meadow. “He had a particular affection for Surrey,” continues Campbell. “As a child, he’d gone on holiday to Guildford and Farnham and watched manoeuvres at Aldershot.”
He was eventually to return to the military too. With the outbreak of World War Two, he joined the Surrey Home Guard, and once more recorded day-to-day events and the artillery that he still found so fascinating.
Yet for all his prodigious output – he was Punch’s chief cartoonist for nearly 20 years – it is Pooh for which he is mainly remembered. “He felt his career and output as a cartoonist were overshadowed,” says Campbell. Shepard’s War goes a long way to bringing that work out into the light.
• Shepard’s War by James Campbell is published by Michael O’Mara Books, priced at £25. Surrey Life readers can order it for the special price of £19.99 with free postage & packing by calling 01903 828503 and quoting SL/SW (UK mainland only, while stocks last).
• An accompanying exhibition, EH Shepard: An Illustrator’s War, runs at The House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH until Sunday January 10. For details, see house ofillustration.org.uk
Find out more
The Shepard Archive at the University of Surrey in Guildford holds more than 4,000 items, including sketchbooks, personal correspondence and various items from his days on the front line.
“A lot of archives have only one side, but we have both his letters to his wife, and hers to him, so there’s a conversation,” says archivist Sharon Maxwell.
“The archive is also useful to artists looking at how Shepard worked from first draft to finished work, and to family historians whose ancestors were in the Royal Artillery.”
The archives are openin the University Library from Tuesday to Thursday, 10am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 4pm.
It is recommended that visitors give one working day’s notice, to enable staff to retrieve the necessary research material, by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• The Shepard Archive, Archives and Special Collections, University Library, George Edwards Building, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH. Tel: 01483 683030. Web: surrey.ac.uk/library /research/archives