E.H. Shepard, Drawn from Life (1961)
Ernest Shepard, best known today as the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh and its companions, wrote two memoirs that have just been added to the lovely series of Slightly Foxed Editions. These small, colorful hardcovers, bound in the UK, are typeset in a clean, nicely balanced format that is a pleasure to read. The contents, aside from all being memoirs or biographies, vary widely, but some of my very favorites are the ones that include illustrations by the artist-authors: Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, and now Shepard’s profusely illustrated pair.
As you might expect from Shepard’s masterful children’s book illustrations, which capture idiosyncracies of character with a remarkable economy of line, these are delightful vignettes of a Victorian childhood and adolescence. The writing style is straightforward, with an understated sense of humor. The narrative rambles along in an episodic, generally chronological way — as I described in my earlier review of the first volume (in another edition), Drawn from Memory, “there’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.”
I’d not yet been able to find the second volume, Drawn from Life, when I happily learned of the Slightly Foxed reprint. So I couldn’t wait to learn what happened next in Shepard’s young life.
The death of his mother is simply but movingly described, the young artist’s feelings too deep for many words. The family goes through several moves and upheavals after this, living with a redoubtable set of aunts before claiming their own new home. Shepard also changes schools several times before settling into the Royal Academy art training. One amusing anecdote concerns Shepard and several colleagues helping a friend to finish his painting in time for a deadline.
My favorite part of the book was probably the touching love story of Ernest and his wife, also a talented painter whom he admired from afar before he dared to tell her of his feelings. The book ends with their marriage — I would have loved to go on to learn more about the young couple’s married life and family, but since these books originated as reminiscences for the benefit of the author’s children, perhaps it was not thought necessary to carry on once they came on the scene.
This volume covers a much longer span of time than the first, which took place within a single year, so it has more breadth than depth, and sometimes I found the pace a little headlong. But it gives us a priceless glimpse of an endlessly fascinating era, and of the origins of an artist. Thank you, Slightly Foxed, for yet another gem.