Curator's blog: EH Shepard before Winnie the Pooh

'Fascinating and varied': curator Olivia Ahmad discusses EH Shepard's wartime output

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  • Olivia Ahmad
  • Exhibitions

Ernest Howard Shepard (1879-1976) is one of Britain’s best-known illustrators. His 50-year career saw him illustrate numerous books and hundreds of his cartoons were published in magazines like Punch, The Tatler and The Sketch. However, Shepard’s 1920s images for A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner have dominated his reputation. Our winter exhibition E.H. Shepard: An Illustrator’s War reveals Shepard’s work from the First World War, made years before his association with "that silly old bear".

It’s a fascinating and varied body of work. During the war Shepard was drawing for a range of purposes and audiences: he did commercial cartoons for magazines back in England, topographical drawings for army intelligence, personal reportage and illustrations to amuse his comrades and family back home. His work offers a direct and often chilling view of the reality of war, and by contrast, the positive picture presented by the British press.

When war broke out in 1914, Shepard was working as a freelance illustrator and publishing cartoons in Punch magazine. The editor asked Shepard to satirise subjects other than the war, but he couldn’t focus on anything else. Although the war was a consuming concern, Shepard’s early wartime cartoons are light in tone. They poke fun at the efforts of civilians on the 'home front' and present German soldiers in farcical comic situations.

In 1915, Shepard volunteered for military service. He trained as an officer and joined a siege battery that operated heavy shell-firing guns. In 1916 he left England for the Battle of the Somme. He didn’t return home until 1919.

Shepard fought at some of the war’s most notorious battles in France, Belgium and Italy. His work was gruelling, but he kept drawing throughout. The exhibition features evocative paintings and drawings that reflect Shepard’s experience and the devastating effects of war. Some of the most poignant pieces are his fine landscape drawings, made from front line observation posts to help target gunfire.

Conscious of the need to earn money for his family, Shepard kept sending cartoons to magazines in England from the trenches and his billets. Several were published in Punch. His surroundings influenced the settings for his characters, but his jokes remained light-hearted – in line with the British press’s optimistic support for the war.

Over the past few months, I have found the contrast between Shepard’s punishing experience of war and the cheerful humour of his published work completely compelling. But for me the most affecting images from the exhibition are those that are a step removed from the battlefields and magazine pages: the observed scenes of Italian refugees fleeing conflict, and the tender illustrated letters sent by Shepard to his wife Florence.

It is this humanity that makes this wartime work instantly recognisable as the drawings of the man who went on to create some of the most treasured illustrations of the 20th century.

Olivia Ahmad
Curator