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 close. Cyril was Ernest’s great companion: any number of little incidents begin with ‘Cyril and I . . .’ in a brothers’ world of toy soldiers, cricket, guns and steam engines. Older than both the boys was their sister Ethel, a diligent, self-possessed child, and no less charming for that, who inherited her mother’s musicality and wrote spirited plays for family theatricals.
There were also the aunts. Henry Shepard’s four maiden sisters lived in a house built by their father on the corner of Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. They took a keen interest in the children, scooping them up for annual summer holidays in places not so very far away: Highgate, Wimbledon, Guildford. Aunt Alicia, his godmother; Aunt Annie, an invalid; Aunt Fanny, ‘by far the most energetic’; Aunt Emily, ‘stout and short of breath’: Ernest drew them all.
His gifts were recognized and encouraged early on, with presents of copybooks, paints and pencils. Full of energy, and the relentless curiosity of a small boy, he drew everything: the aunts; Queen Elizabeth and her knights in armour after a visit to Hampton Court; the horse-drawn fire engine racing to the scene of a raging fire at Whiteley’s department store. The joy he had from paper and pencil is evident throughout.
‘The first thing I did when we were back was to rush upstairs and get out my copybook and all the pencil ends that I could find . . .’ His focus is not on himself – though an engaging self-portrait springs from every page – but on his subject; and in childhood, as in his adult life as an artist, his subject is chiefly people. For that is what Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore (not forgetting Toad, Ratty and Mole, and all the rest of them) are, of course, and it is Shepard’s humanity and gift for penetrating the smallest change of mood or expression that has given them their enduring appeal.
One of the many delights of Drawn from Memory lies in what is now the largely lost art of the caption, which in a golden age of children’s literature surely helped shape the prose style of many a young writer: ‘Reminded me of a respectable stork’; ‘Airing my nightshirt over the gas’; ‘Threw herself on a policeman’; ‘Watched him cut and shape some little frogs’; ‘Too shy to kiss her’; ‘Cyril was sick’.
Each one raises a smile, but the ‘untroubled bliss’ of Shepard’s childhood was to end in tragedy. Drawn from Life (1961) opens with the death of his adored mother when he was 10, ‘a bereavement which entirely altered our family life’. The children, sent to stay with the aunts, were devastated: ‘I never dreamed she could die.’ The aunts gave them ‘kindness beyond words’, and when their storm of weeping was over, ‘We solemnly agreed we would cry no more, for Mother would not have liked it.’ Ernest, though scarred for years, was determined to justify the faith she had shown in his talent.
His father, then working as an architectural adviser to University College Hospital, had rented a studio in Gower Street, and told him he could practise in it. Students from the Slade came to buy their paints in the shop beneath it; right in the heart of London’s artistic life, Ernest spent the summer holidays making his first attempts at drawing from the antique, gazing up at his father’s cast of the Venus de Milo.
A word about his father must come here. Bereaved, grieving – he never married again – and often short of money, he managed (not without his sisters) to give his children stability and the gradual return of happiness. He was ever-present in their lives, which, after a year of living with the aunts, were taken up with a move to Hammersmith: he had found a run-down but airy and affordable house in a terrace on the river. They would be able to watch the Boat Race, always a great thing. And another important change was in view: after enduring a bullying and badly run prep school in St John’s Wood (while Ethel attended Queen’s College, Harley Street), Ernest and Cyril were to go to St Paul’s.
A further member of the family now makes a significant appearance: Uncle Willie, Henry’s brother, who had taught in the school for many years, almost certainly arranged for the boys to attend for reduced fees. Ernest was happy there. He did not shine academically – the cry of ‘Ernest, have you done your homework?’ had rung through his early childhood – though he enjoyed science. But for two mornings a week they worked in the drawing school, and here, of course, he shone. ‘I drew every sort of subject, with a preference for battle scenes . . . [and] was soon promoted to a drawing board and a stool to make studies from the antique.’
In his last year, encouraged by the ambitious High Master, he successfully applied for a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools and, encouraged by his father, began attending Heatherley’s Art School on Saturdays. The school, in Newman Street, was well-established, but ‘The tuition was not good and I often think I should have done better to have gone to the Slade where, under Tonks, more attention was paid to good drawing.’ In addition, leaving school at 16, ‘I did not consider what effect [it] would have on my general education, and I have often thought that another two years would have given me a better start in life.’
Nonetheless, in 1897 he took up his scholarship, cycling in from Hammersmith to Piccadilly, working from ten to three. And now, after all those years of drawing, from life and the antique, Ernest was expected to paint. On holiday in Wales (the Shepards were great ones for holidays) an early landscape in oils, A Bridge over a Trout Stream, required for an annual prize, proved a struggle, and he did not win, though later, with Poohsticks, he was to draw one of the most famous bridges in children’s literature.
Back in the RA painting studio, copying a Velázquez, he finally received a few useful words on the subject from a girl who stood watching him work. ‘I think you’re frightened of it,’ she said. ‘Try painting more thickly. The drawing’s all right, but don’t be afraid of going over the edges.’ The speaker was Florence Chaplin, the talented granddaughter of one of the founders of Punch.
Ernest had been susceptible to girls from an early age, falling for pretty ones in dance classes, the daughters of family friends, any number of pantomime Principal Boys. Now, though he did not know it, he had met the love of his life. (‘Your drawing is much better than your painting,’ she told him on another occasion, her directness – and accuracy – a mark of her own character.) It would be another two years before he encountered her again, got to know her properly, and finally made his proposal. Both were gifted, impoverished and, eventually, overcome by their feelings for one another. The story Shepard tells of their courtship is tender and touching. Each left the RA Schools with major prizes.
The beginning of their married life, with which these memoirs conclude, lay in a very modest Surrey cottage, found by Shepard on a cycling trip. His feeling for home, nurtured in childhood, ran so deep, and doing it up for his beloved gave him so much fun and pleasure, that it is hard not to hear the voice of Ratty, waiting down the years for the artist to bring him to life, and pronounce it a capital little place.
© Sue Gee, Slightly Foxed Issue 60
Illustrations © The Estate of E. H. Shepard