Guardian private view at The House of Illustration, Thursday 22nd October 2015
E.H. Shepard is most well known for his illustrations for A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. This latest exhibition from the House of Illustration displays the largely unseen works of Shepard from his time serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery during World War 1.
Director of the House of Illustration, Colin McKenzie opened the private view with a passionate talk about Shepard, and the making of the exhibition. Much of the material in the exhibition is sourced from the University of Surrey, where an archive is held, however, a significant part is owned by the family of E.H, a largely never before seen collection of work and ephemera.
When exploring the family’s collection, it quickly became apparent the shear wealth of wartime material that was available. This wasn’t to be a typical E.H. Shepard exhibition of his well known illustrations, but one that would present this unseen material for the very first time.
The show has been put together extremely sympathetically; every single detail has been thought out with great care. Spread over four rooms, the show opens with illustrations, photographs and letters from Shepard’s early days, and his immense talent is apparent from a young age. In fact, it’s this talent that won him competitions which funded his education at the Royal Academy in London. The room also displayed some of his early satirical cartoons for Punch magazine.
The light hearted tone changed abruptly in the second room. The moss green walls changed to a matt black as Shepard’s life transformed and we entered the wartime era. A military photograph of Shepard’s brother, Cyril preceded a pristine map of the Western Front. Blink and you will miss a tiny cross marking the location of Cyril’s death, just weeks into the Battle of the Somme.
The works are ordered chronologically, but this poignant element of the show very much sets the tone for this room. The serious terror of war is unmistakable, and there is something about the depiction of this through illustration that is more powerful even, than the photographs we have become accustomed to. Original sketches are displayed together with the inked finals, which presents Shepard’s use of visual language, process and talent. What must it have been like to relive these scenes of trepidation through drawing? It must have been difficult of course, but perhaps also, a period of cathartic reflection.
In contrast, Shepard’s satire punctuates an otherwise sombre story; forbidding scenes are softened with the jovial faces of his comrades, and accompanying captions add a breath of comic relief. This allows a letter from his agent, to Shepard’s wife, expressing concern at the lack of illustrations received by Punch to be read in an amusing manner; a letter of course regarding a man who may be somewhat pre-occupied with trench warfare. Later in the exhibition a quote from Shepard is given in response to Punch asking for less war related drawings, to which he replies ‘it’s hard to think about anything else.’ White walls alternate with the black, expressing the light and dark times felt during this era in Shepard’s life.
The objects displayed from the collections assist in creating comprehensive and vivid narrative, which include Shepard’s paint box, sketchbooks, journals, pencil case, military cap and map bag, as well as letters and drawings shared between Shepard and his wife, Florence. The depiction of his working and personal lives are intertwined creating a natural, empathetic exhibition of the collections.
The light mauve of the third room envelopes the viewer into a warm sense of relief as the wartime era of Shepard’s life closes. It is liberating to read the letter demobilising Shepard from Service, and see the single sketches for Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows and others as they act as a signpost for the success we all know that follows.
The fourth and final tiny room serves as a theatre, showing a short film by the House of Illustration featuring discussions of the work from illustrator and writer Chris Riddell, and satirist Ian Hislop, which summarises the exhibition neatly.
E.H. Shepard: An Illustrators War, is a beautifully compiled exhibition curated by Olivia Ahmad, which on her blog piece for the gallery writes that it is the
“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.” (houseofillustration.org)
These works combined with the delicate exhibition design: the wooden text panels, the soft colour scheme and the low lighting, create a sensitive and evocative show that I would absolutely urge anyone to see. It will completely transform the way you see both illustration, and your perceptions of wartime Britain.
E.H. Shepard: An Illustrators War is on display at the House of Illustration until 24th January 2016