Ernest Howard Shepard is as connected to the tales of Winnie the Pooh is as A. A. Milne or Christopher Robin is. The illustrator was the first to bring Pooh to life in Milne’s poems and stayed with the bear through all his publications.
Born 10 December 1879, drawing was always a passion of Shepard’s. As a child he attended St Paul’s School, but after showing artistic promise and a love for drawing he enrolled in Heatherley’s School of Fine Arts. From here he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools which was where he met Florence Eleanor Chaplin, the woman who would become his first wife.
He enlisted in World War I and sent jokes back from the battle to Punch magazine. Upon his return he was offered a position on staff which is where he was introduced to Milne. Shepard contributed to Punch for more than 50 years with 33 of them as staff. Shepard continued working into his 90s even after he left Punch. He worked on the Pooh books, and in other places as an illustrator, but he also produced two books himself in his 80s titled, Ben and Brook and Betsy and Joe.
Shepard was not only the one who brought Milne’s characters to life; he also illustrated Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and other Grahame books. I remember discovering that when I studied Wind in the Willows at uni and I was surprised I’d never notice before. It’s hard to imagine these books with any other style. Milne originally didn’t think Shepard’s drawing style was any good, describing him as “perfectly hopeless” as an artist. But eventually Milne saw the magic in the drawings, so much so he even added a special verse to Shepard’s own copy of Winnie the Pooh. The verse read:
“When I am gone
Let Shepard decorate my tomb
and put (if there is room)
Two pictures on the stone:
Piglet from page a hundred and eleven,
And Pooh and Piglet walking (157) . . .
And Peter, thinking they are my own,
Will welcome me to heaven.”
Which in itself makes me teary because I love these characters so much they are so sweet and adorable and I am so glad Milne loved him as an illustrator. This wish didn’t end up happening because Milne was cremated and I don’t think anyone knows where his ashes are, but the sentiment remains. (I tried very hard to find exactly which images these were but only found some that are most likely.) Grahame also adored him, having gone through three other artists before finding Shepard. He said Shepard didn’t make his characters look like puppets, he made them real.
When he was 90, Shepard donated 300 of his preliminary sketches for the Pooh drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum where they went on display in 1969. After being exhibited around the world these sketches are now published as The Pooh Sketch Book which is edited by Brian Selby, one of the authors of the new Pooh stories.
While the original drawings of Pooh were line drawings, Shepard also made new coloured versions for the 1973 editions of Winnie the Pooh and the 1974 House at Pooh Corner. These editions also contained brand new line and colour drawings by Shepard.
Shepard died in the 50th year anniversary of Winnie the Pooh in 1976 which is a little sad. So this also makes it the 40th anniversary since Shepard’s death. Like Milne, Shepard will live on through his famous work with Pooh as well as with Grahame’s books, and as we’ve seen with new Pooh stories, artists continue to try and capture the magic of those original illustrations.