The lodger has gone home to Germany for dental treatment, and I have crept into her room with a purpose. Standing on a kitchen chair, I pull out from the top of the bookshelves three little hardbacks, worn and water-stained. They date from the 1940s and ’50s, though they were published decades earlier, and are bound in blue, green and yellow cloth. One is energetically scribbled on in pencil; in one I have made an early attempt at writing my name; another is inscribed by my mother: ‘Not to be taken away. To be kept for the next generation!’ She was a great one for exclamation marks. My I LOVE YOU in awkward capitals, upside down at the bottom of Now We Are Six, is probably addressed to her, though it might be to the small round bear in the corner, wearing a waistcoat and clutching a piece of paper, for I certainly loved him too.
These little volumes are the cherished books of my early childhood and that of countless other children. In 1924, When We Were Very Young sold over 5,000 copies on the first day of publication; within eight weeks it had sold 40,000 more. Within four years, with the publication of The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin, Alice and Buckingham Palace, Mary-Jane and her horrid rice pudding, Pooh, hunny and the Hundred Acre Wood had settled into the English home as if they had always been meant to do so, and it is hard to know whether it is the featherlight words of A. A. Milne or the airy ‘decorations’ of E. H. Shepard that everyone has ever since loved the more, so perfect was their partnership.
Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879, the youngest of three children. He was small – known as ‘little’ Shepard at the Royal Academy Schools where he received his adult training. And his memoir Drawn from Memory (1957), which covers 1887, the Golden Jubilee year in which he turned 8, is an account of a happy, loving child gazing up at the adult world.
Henry Shepard, his father, was an architect; his mother Jessie, daughter of the water-colourist William Lee, was musical; their milieu was one of artists, of easygoing drawing-rooms, music and song, and they gave their children a sweet-tempered domestic life, complete with outings: to pantomime, music hall, studios and private views. The house in St John’s Wood was roomy and well-run, with the staff below stairs very much a part of things. And the children were c
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