At least two leading illustrators of Punch magazine in the mid-20th Century were warriors of World War I. Kenneth Bird (“Fougasse”) was seriously wounded in Gallipoli and went on to be the first cartoonist to edit Punch. And EH Shepard, OBE, MC (1879 – 1976), who saw extraordinary action in three theatres on the Western Front before serving in Italy.
Most of us know EH Shepard as the illustrator who gave us the Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet we all know so well, not to mention Ratty, Toad et al in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. After the war and for over 30 years afterwards, he provided cartoons and illustrations for Punch and other popular publications.
But during the war itself, during those long boring lulls between short outbreaks of terror, blood and death that soldiers know so well, he produced hundreds of sketches in pencil and ink as well as watercolours.
Shepard was born in London in 1879. In 1915, he signed up at a relatively advanced age of 35. He joined 105 battery Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), with whom he remained for the whole confict. Extraordinarily, he saw action at the Somme, Arras and Ypres (Passchendaele), virtually unscathed. In fact, he unwittingly gained a reputation for being lucky to the extent that superstitious comrades began to stick close to him. This is all the more extraordinary given that he did spells as a forward observation officer (FOO) whose survival time typically was measured at under an hour. This was in stark contrast to his brother who was killed quickly and early in the Somme campaign. At the war’s end 105 battery was fighting in Italy. By this time Shepard had been promoted to major.
To commemorate the centenary of EH Shepard’s joining the Great War, the House of Illustration has an exhibition of his wartime output. Amazingly, through much of the campaign he continued to do commercial work, particularly for Punch. And it’s hard to know what to think when he got a letter on the front via his wife, from his agent urging him to maintain his output! The show features a lot of correspondence, mainly between husband and wife, which reminds us of the staggeringly efficient postal service to and from the troops and also reminds us how close was the Western Front to London geographically.
The show also features other ephemera such as diaries, the artist’s watercolour palatte, bits of uniform etc. But mainly it’s all about the illustration. While most of it was created to amuse – both on the front and in the pages of Punch – some of the illustrations were created for strategic purposes, so we have beautiful wide landscapes with grid markings, for example.
Some of the early Punch work features propagandistic anti-German stereotyping, mostly very funny if taken in context (and possibly even if not). We have examples of caricatures of fellow soldiers, Gunner Jackson refereeing a football match is perfectly done in its simplicity, you feel you know him well. The final room features work by Shepard in the decades after the conflict. He didn’t dwell on it much – proper heroes tend not to – but he was always available to do illustrations for programmes or menus relating to reunions, some of which are featured.
This is a wonderful exhibition which reinforces that which we already know: that EH Shepard was a massively talented illustrator who effortlessly produced work to raise the spirits of those in the most stressful circumstances imaginable, work which shines just as brightly a hundred years on.
EH Shepard: An Illustrator’s War runs until 24 January 2016.