E.H. Shepard & the Art of Illustration

04/14/2020     Books & Autographs

NEW YORK, NY -- For a rare few children’s books, the original illustrations have become such a natural extension of the text that they are as much a part of the work as the words themselves. Alice in Wonderland is a case in point; though many versions of Alice exist, not to have read the work with the accompanying Tenniel illustrations is, on some level, to have missed out on the fundamental experience of the book. The Pauline Baynes illustrations to the Chronicles of Narnia have much the same essential quality, but this synergy is a rare achievement for any illustrator. As such, it is a real testament to his extraordinary talent that E. H. (Ernest Howard) Shepard achieved this feat twice - once with his illustrations for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and again with the four volumes of A.A. Milne’s children’s books (most especially with the two volumes of the Pooh stories).

The Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908 and in its first edition bore just a frontispiece (one of monumental irrelevance to the narrative) by Graham Robertson. Many illustrators before and after Shepard created drawings for Grahame’s book (so many, in fact, that there is a work on the subject that lists over ninety artists); however, Shepard’s line drawings, which first appeared in the 1931 edition, are deceptively simple and extraordinarily successful. Their finely-spun lines capture the spirit of the text as no others do. To my eye, their most remarkable achievement is making the animals of the text appear realistic (Toad always looks like a real toad, even when he is dressed as a washerwoman) while at the same time charmingly human. That duality is tremendously important to the text because in order to fully enjoy Grahame’s extraordinary pastoral ideal, one must apply a willing suspension of disbelief.

Grahame seems to have been more than happy with Shepard as an illustrator; before Shepard, he had asked three others to illustrate The Wind in the Willows and was displeased with the results. About Shepard’s illustrations, of which he saw a few before his death, he reportedly said, “I’m glad you made them real.”

A.A. Milne however, was initially skeptical that Shepard could do his work justice. He did, however, use Shepard to illustrate When We Were Very Young and was sufficiently delighted with the results that he asked him to illustrate both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, as well as his second book of children’s verse Now We Are Six. So completely was Milne won over that he arranged for Shepard to receive a share of the royalties, an extremely unusual arrangement at the time. The copy of Winnie-the-Pooh that Milne inscribed to Shepard bears a verse that stands as a testament to this more-or-less perfect combination of talents:

When I am gone,
Let Shepard decorate my tomb,
And put (if there is room)
Two pictures on the stone:
Piglet from page a hundred and eleven,
And Pooh and Piglet walking (157) ...
And Peter, thinking that they are my own,
Will welcome me to Heaven.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 in St. John’s Wood, the son of an architect. His mother, Jessie Harriet Lee, was the daughter of the highly-regarded watercolorist and painter William Lee. In short, his was a family of artists, and his talent declared itself at an early age. His education (first at St. Paul's School in London, followed by two noteworthy scholarships to the Royal Academy Schools) outfitted him well for pursuing a career as an artist. Though his early paintings achieved both recognition and sales (two were exhibited at the Royal Academy the year that he graduated from art school and one sold for a hundred pounds, no small amount in 1904), he decided that painting would not be his primary medium and turned instead to illustration. In 1907, Punch accepted two of his drawings and he began to receive commissions to illustrate books.

When World War I began, Shepard saw action at the Battle of the Somme as part of the Royal Garrison Artillery, in which he was initially a second lieutenant in the 105th Siege Battery. His artistic abilities came into play after he was recruited by the Intelligence Department. Shepard sketched the field of combat visible from wherever his battery was posted. For his courage in this role, observing while under bombardment, he was given an M.C., the Military Cross. He was at Arras, Passchendaele and the third Battle of Ypres, and afterwards was posted to the Italian Front. He was demobilized (by then he was a Major) when the Siege Battery was disbanded in 1919.

During the war, Shepard had also been regularly contributing to Punch. His drawings from the war years are powerful evocations of the conflict, showing both the camaraderie of the men with whom he served and the desolation of the landscapes that he witnessed; the Punch cartoons, naturally, humorize the conflict. In 1921, Shepard became a staff cartoonist at the magazine, a position which was full-time and gave him a regular income. It was through Punch that he began his work with A.A. Milne. Shepard’s friend, the writer and publisher E.V. Lucas, was a chairman of Methuen. In that capacity, Lucas received an early submission of verses for When We Were Very Young. Milne himself had worked at Punch as an assistant editor, so it was natural for Lucas to suggest that some of the verses be published in the magazine and to ask Shepard to illustrate them. Eleven were published in Punch in all, and ultimately Milne invited Shepard to illustrate the work when it appeared in book form.

Thus came about the collaboration that gave rise to some of the best children’s illustrations of all time, the Christopher Robin quartet. Shepard closely observed the area around Milne’s home, Cotchford Farm, in East Sussex. It was the land there, including Ashdown Forest, that became the Hundred Acre Wood in which Pooh and Piglet had their adventures. Closely observed by Shepard, the setting of the books is no fantasy world; it is very much an evocation of this area (one which I have walked and enjoyed).

The success of the books about Christopher Robin, Pooh and his friends was ultimately something of a burden for Shepard, Milne, and (famously) for the author's son Christopher Robin. Neither Milne nor Shepard wanted their lives to be defined by the Pooh books, but Milne never again wrote anything as successful, and felt himself forever branded as a “children’s author”. For his part, Shepard felt that the illustrations for Pooh overshadowed much of his other work. Still they remain, along with the drawings for Wind in the Willows, an enduring monument to the art of illustration.

Rare Books, Autographs & Maps
The April 22, 2020 auction features a group of original drawings by E.H. Shepard from the The Mary K. Young Collection.