Shepard was best known for his beautiful work on AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh series and Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, as well as his cartoons for satirical magazine Punch. Between 1916 and 1919, however, he produced a substantial body of work while serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery during World War One – much of which has never been seen until now.
Opening tomorrow at the House of Illustration is E.H. Shepard: An Illustrators War, the first ever exhibition of Shepard’s work from the trenches. The show includes reportage work, detailed topographical drawings of battlefields and artwork for magazines produced by and for serving soldiers.
The exhibition accompanies a new title about Shepard’s wartime work published by Michael O’ Mara Books and aims to showcase a different side to the much-loved artist’s work.
Shepard signed up for military service in 1915 and left Britain to fight in the war the following year. He travelled to France, Belgium and Italy before returning home in 1919 and took part in the battles of Somme, Arras and Ypres, receiving the Military Cross for his bravery in the field. During this time, he produced hundreds of sketches, paintings and drawings and continued to make cartoons for Punch.
While Shepard’s artwork for the magazine is light-hearted and humorous, capturing the pro-war sentiment in the British media at the time, his personal work offers a less positive portrayal of life on the frontline, with images of wounded soldiers, devastated battlefields and refugees escaping conflict.
As part of a battery siege which operated heavy howitzer guns and travelled around five miles behind the frontline, Shepard would often visit observation posts to make detailed topographical drawings of battle areas, which were made to scale and used to plot the location of enemy gunfire. He also produced accurate pencil sketches and paintings of dug-outs.
One of the most poignant pieces on show is a map of Albert, a town in France and a key location in the battle of the Somme, on which Shepard has marked the location of his brother Cyril’s grave.
“Shepard went out to the Somme in June or July, and his brother, who he was close to, followed a couple of days later,” says curator Olivia Ahmad. “But he was killed almost instantly. When Shepard found out, he went to find his grave. He took a map with him and drew a tiny cross marking the co-ordinates where his brother was buried. All of the other maps he had were working documents, so they’re a bit tatty, but this one is pristine, with just this one tiny notation,” she adds.
Shepard also lost several soldiers in his battery – “he wasn’t untouched by the horrors of war,” says Ahmad – but much of the work he produced during the war remains surprisingly upbeat. While many artists adopted abstract, figurative or expressionist styles in their struggle to come to terms with the trauma of war, Shepard continued to produce playful or more factual paintings and drawings.
“He kept up quite a cheerful appearance,” says Ahmad. “He and his wife [Florence Eleanor Chaplin] wrote to each other every day and we have some of their correspondence in the show. It’s quite mundane – they’ll talk about the weather, and missing each other, and having cherry brandy with tea, and he would often draw pictures of her and send them with his letters,” she explains.
“One of the letters is quite saucy – his wife has written to him to tell him she has some new lingerie and he has drawn a picture of her in it. You get the sense they were quite a fun couple, and it’s nice to think of there being another side to him, away from the children’s illustration and creating those worlds for Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows.”
Alongside letters to his wife, his commissioned work and drawings from the trenches are a series of images which show a lighter side to military life during World War One. There are photographs of a play performed by soldiers in Shepard’s battery, for which he designed the set and costumes and illustrated a programme, and artwork from a satirical magazine, Venti Quattro, which he made with and for other soldiers while stationed in Italy.
“The press was very supportive of the war, and sometimes the soldiers would feel increasingly frustrated with this, so would publish their own more satirical magazines,” explains Ahmad. “The illustrations aren’t biting satire – I don’t think that was Shepard’s style – but they’re quite irreverent. There was a war correspondent at the time known as Horatio Bottomley, who was often derided by soldiers for presenting unrealistic portrayals of the war, and Shepard’s magazine features a character called Boratio Hottomley, so there were lots of little in-jokes.”
Upon returning from the war, Shepard’s career took off: he received several commissions for books and was hired as a cartoonist for Punch in 1921, remaining at the magazine for 33 years. He was also invited to join the Punch table – editors and contributors would gather for a meal once a week to plan forthcoming issues – where he was introduced to AA Milne by EV Lucas, who was publishing a book of poems by the author. The first Winnie the Pooh book was released in 1926.
It’s a fascinating collection and a rare chance to see a different side to Shepard’s work. Items have been donated by the Imperial War Museum, the Shepard Trust, the Mary Evans Picture Library, Chris Beetles Gallery and the University of Surrey, and most have never before been on public display.
“He’s one of the most famous illustrators of the 20th century, one of the few that was a household name, and everyone knows who he is – yet so little is known about his work before Winnie the Pooh. That’s why we wanted to put on the show, to show people this side to his work,” says Ahmad.
E.H. Shepard: An Illustrator’s War opens at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH on October 9 until January 10 2016. Adult tickets cost £7. For details and opening hours, see houseofillustration.org.uk
Lead image: The Newcomer. “My Village, I Think?” by EH Shepard. Artwork from The Shepard Trust archive. Reproduced with permission of Punch Ltd.