Self-portrait of the artist

15th December 2000 at 00:00
THE MAN WHO DREW POOH. The Art of E H Shepard. Dulwich Picture Gallery until January 21. Just ten minutes on the train from Victoria, this is a must for anyone visiting London during the Christmas holidays. This gallery is renowned for its enlightened approach and the first thing you notice is that the 142 pictures, mostly line drawings, are hung low enough for children to get a really good look at them.

Like Tenniel's Alice, Pooh as drawn by Shepard has become an icon, but although there are plenty of pictures of the bear of little brain and friends, this glorious exhibition gives a broader picture of EH, outlining the development of his talent, evident from an early age. Always drawing, he illustrated his life as he went along.

Ernest Shepard was born in London in 1879. Luckily his father took the trouble to save his son's childhood artwork, so you can see the dramatic drawing he did at eight of the fire at the Bayswater department store, Whiteley's; a sophisticated illustration he did at 14 for The Pickwick Papers, and a complex drawing of a royal wedding set out like a military campaign on the back of his Latin homework.

He went on to study at the Royal Academy Schools and in 1904 married Florence Chaplin, a fellow art student. Portrait studies mingle with light-hearted drawings from his letters to Florence which have a delightful, almost Pooterish feel, followed by drawings of their children, often used as models. Certain drawings were recycled; the drawing of his daughter Mary in a high chair in 1910 is echoed in the poem in When We Were Very Young about Mary Jane who wouldn't eat her rice pudding.

Shepard also worked as a book illustrator and a political cartoonist for Punch. And in the war, as an officer in the Royal Artillery, he continued to dra compulsively. There are horses, guns, soldiers, POWs, watercolour landscapes, a self-portrait in the trenches and even imaginary drawings of his wife wearing some new underwear she described in one of her letters. Most poignant from this period is the pencil drawing of his son Graham, born in 1907, who was to die in the Second World War.

Shepard did a lot of autobiographical writing and the accompanying drawings, particularly those based on his childhood, provide a richly textured account of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His grasp of changing fashions, hairstyles and interiors demonstrates the eye for detail that informed his work as an illustrator and a cartoonist.

It was at Punch that he met A A Milne. Because he never stopped drawing, Shepard had an easy, fluent style, perfect for drawing children. His understanding of the human figure, and the subtle communications of gesture and body language, enabled him effortlessly to breathe life into those famous stuffed animals, magically endowing them with a touching eloquence. Looking at Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet - even from behind - we know exactly what's going on in those kapok-filled heads.

What's exciting above all is to see so many preliminary drawings, with their spontaneity and extensive reworkings. There are exquisite studies of Ashdown Forest whose trees provide the framework for these stories. The drawing of Pooh standing on the chestnut bough outside Owl's house is a perfect example of Shepard's unique fusion of timeless fantasy and sure-footed observation.

Joanna Carey Dulwich Picture Gallery, College Road, London SE21. Tel: 020 8693 5254. Closed Monday. Children free (everyone free on Friday until 5pm). "The Man who Drew Pooh" by Arthur R Chandler (Jaydem Books pound;19.99)


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