‘The drawing’s alright but don’t worry about going over the edges,’ offers Florence Chaplin to the 17-year-old Ernest Shepard in his first term at the Royal Academy Schools. Sound advice for the artist who would later draw the world of Winnie-the-Pooh (and Mole, Ratty and Toad), and become an illustrator beloved by children everywhere.
In these two volumes of memoirs, we find a portrait of a childhood in two parts. Drawn from Memory (1957) covers 1887, the Golden Jubilee year in which Ernest turned 8. It is an account of a happy, loving child gazing up at the adult world, capturing the naïvety and enthusiasm of that age, when the heart races at the sight of a fire engine or a gunship on the Thames. He lives a sweet-tempered domestic life, extremely close to his brother Cyril (a companion on almost all adventures), with plenty of outings: to the pantomime, the music hall and the seaside. Both his parents – his father an architect, his mother musical – encourage his drawing, and his early sketches reveal ‘a somewhat lively imagination, mostly concerned with battle scenes’.
But the untroubled bliss of Ernest’s childhood ends in tragedy. Drawn from Life (1961) opens with the death of his adored mother, when he is 10. The children, sent away to the care of aunts, are devastated. The aunts become a steady presence from here on:Aunt Alicia, his godmother; Aunt Annie, an invalid; Aunt Fanny, ‘by far the most energetic’; Aunt Emily, ‘stout and short of breath’. They are the sort of aunts with whom things do not agree: trains, the cold, London.
The loss of his mother casts a long shadow over the years of prep school, but Ernest presses on, eventually getting to St Paul’s and from there to the Royal Academy Schools. Throughout all this he is always drawing, studying the people around him, watching for those moments of expression that come to characterize his style. One of the many joys of these delightful memoirs are the sketches and their captions – Ernest was a true master of capturing the vitality of a scene, and the emotional depths of his subjects.
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