The Shepard Touch: Drawn from Life

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.


Saluting Slightly Foxed Paperbacks

As I’ve said before, the wonderful memoirs reprinted as Slightly Foxed Editions make terrific gifts. And if you’re looking for something a little smaller and lighter to slip into a stocking, or into your own pocket or handbag, take a look at Slightly Foxed Paperbacks. They have the same classic, elegant design of the hardcover editions, but are dressed in a high-quality cream-colored softcover binding with a touch of accent color, and sport French flaps (always a favorite feature of mine). Right now there are nine of these understated gems available, which you can purchase  individually, or as a complete set at special savings.

youngardizzRecently I had the chance to sample a couple of the titles on offer. The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, the renowned artist and children’s book illustrator (currently the focus of a retrospective at London’s House of Illustration) is a marvelously observed memoir of an Edwardian childhood. As with E.H. Shepard’s Drawn from Memory (a book that I hope SF will take on one day!) the prose is charming in itself, but it’s the illustrations that really make the book stand out. Though Ardizzone claims he didn’t grow up with the idea of becoming an artist, only turning to it as a career after being rejected from the army and failing as a clerical worker, he captures his childhood memories with such vivid immediacy one can hardly believe he wasn’t sketching them as they happened.

Rosemary Sutcliff, another of the twentieth century’s great creators of literature for children (with no upper age limit), captured her own childhood in Blue Remembered Hills. Hers was a life marked by what some would call tragedy, as she suffered from an early-onset form of arthritis known as Still’s Disease. Painfully limited in her movements, and with corresponding constrictions in her social life, she yet developed extraordinary skills of observation and insight that allowed her to create historical novels of great imaginative power. Her love for people, places, and the natural world shines through every page of this memoir, as it does in her fictional work.

Some of Sutcliff’s “blue remembered hills” in North Devon – Source

I’ve also read two other of the available titles, although in different editions: Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith (a must-read for fans of I Capture the Castle), and My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt, a mesmerizing account of a very odd family. Based on these four, I can confidently recommend Slightly Foxed Paperbacks as sure to enchant, educate, and divert you.

The most recent SF e-newsletter features an excerpt from Look Back with Love, which will give you a taste of the delights in store. I do hope you will be inspired to dive further in.

A Slightly Foxed Summer

Issue-50-Print-App-ImageIn a world that seems to be growing ruder, stupider, and more contentious every day, what a pleasure it is to come home to find a parcel from Slightly Foxed in the post. Publishers of what is surely one of the most civilized periodicals on earth, their eponymous journal subtitled “The Real Reader’s Quarterly,” they exist to unite readers in a joyous celebration of the pleasures of the written word. As I enter upon the creamy pages of the summer issue, I can breathe a sigh of relief and slip into a world where humility, thoughtfulness, and good humor are actually honored qualities.

This issue begins with a taste of a delicious-sounding cookbook-slash-travelogue, Around the World in Eighty Dishes, and ends with a description of a delightfully eccentric British institution, the Royal Society of Literature. In between there’s a reassessment of Gulliver’s Travels, a moving personal essay about the impact E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain had upon a troubled friendship, a vivid appreciation of The Siege of Krishnapur, and much more. With each piece I get a glimpse not just of the books under discussion, but at the very individual tastes and personalities of the writers, as they share where, when, and how they met these books that they love, and why they matter so much to them. Books that had just been names to me spring to life, titles I had never heard of become must-find-now objects of desire.

This latest issue is number 50, and it’s no small achievement to have reached that “middle-aged” milestone. In celebration, Slightly Foxed is offering US subscribers the same rate as other overseas customers, and all subscribers receive online access to the digital edition, including the archive of 50 back issues. It’s a characteristically generous gesture, a way to spread the love. Though economic necessity obviously must be acknowledged, books and periodicals printed and paid for, there’s never a doubt that sharing our mutual enthusiasm (not to say obsession) is at the core of the Slightly Foxed mission.

SFE-brensham-village-494x741Along with SF50, my parcel included the latest classic reprint in the series of Slightly Foxed Editions: Brensham Village by John Moore. It’s a sequel (to Portrait of Elmbury) but I didn’t find that not having read the first volume hampered my enjoyment of this memoir about life in an English village between the wars. I haven’t finished it yet, but already I’ve been introduced to a wonderful array of characters, including a “mad lord” whose madness seems mainly to consist of not minding being poor, a schoolmaster who inspires his boys with an equal passion for Latin and butterfly hunting, and a nature-loving vicar who blithely ignores complaints about nesting boxes in the church porch and live bait in the font. It’s a lovely place to inhabit, though bittersweet, for one knows — as did the author — that this world has vanished, never to return. At least through Moore’s finely crafted prose we can revisit it for a time.

So thank you, Slightly Foxed, for helping to remind me of what really matters: Interest in other people and their ways of life. Striving for discernment and clarity in our judgments and attitudes. An undiminished capacity for wonder. Here’s to another fifty issues, and to all the further reading — and learning and laughter and thinking — they will inspire.

For more about Slightly Foxed Quarterly and Slightly Foxed Editions, visit the website.

A copy was received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.





Celebrating Slightly Foxed

SlightlyFoxedWhat makes Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly so great? As I perused the latest issue, I realized that in many ways it’s exactly what I wish my blog to be, and what I appreciate about other blogs. Each issue contains around a dozen and a half essays in which readers of many stripes celebrate books that have moved, enlightened, impressed, or astonished them. The selection of titles is wonderfully eclectic, blithely leaping over barriers of genre, subject matter, language, geography, target age, and publication date.

The current issue, for example, includes pieces on the journal written by Sir Walter Scott as he teetered on the brink of bankruptcy; Alison Lurie’s Los Angeles novel The Nowhere City; exploring Athens with a nineteenth-century Murray guide (better than Baedecker); a novel of women’s rights by a famous suffragette (and discarded lover of H.G. Wells); Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez’s prose ode to his donkey; and many more. With some well-known classics, some obscure and forgotten titles, and some overlooked contemporary gems, it’s a good representation of the kind of assortment to be found in each quarterly issue, though the actual content is always delightfully unexpected. Whether or not I would previously have thought to be interested in such topics, I always read each issue from cover to cover with unabated joy in the expansion of my reading horizons.

Though the authors of these pieces are often celebrated writers and scholars themselves, their tone is unstuffy, generous, and never, ever pretentious. (You can tell that they don’t take themselves too seriously from the amusing biographical snippets at the end of each essay.) They frequently include anecdotes of how a book came into their lives or what role it played for them personally. Yet their writing is always intelligent, discerning, and considered, as they bring subjective interest to their topics without losing their objective critical eyes.

Bloggers have gotten some bad press lately for not being “real readers,” not qualified to pass judgment on the books they discuss. When the name-calling gets ugly, put down your weapons and pick up an issue of Slightly Foxed. It will remind you of what it really means to be a reader: to be endlessly intrigued and delighted by what we can learn from books, and how they can both challenge and console us. It’s an inspiration to me in my own small efforts to share one reader’s journey, and I hope will be to you as well.

As well as their quarterly publication in print and digital form, Slightly Foxed also offers their own line of beautifully produced books and runs a London bookshop.

Digital-only subscriptions are available from Exact Editions, by the quarter or the year (subscriptions include access to all back issues).

A copy was received from the publisher for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.