The Work of E.H. Shepard
Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator
Nicholas and the Fast Moving Diesel
A Child's Christmas in Wales
Conscientious lovers of Literature and Art suffer acutely in our society if they happen also to be the parents of young children. They are assailed from all sides by commercial artists, skillful people but without taste or talent, and these purvey hideous rubbish on cereal packets, in comic books, on the screen, in newspapers, and in the form of toys and packaging of all kinds. The stuff is carefully designed to appeal to the young and to debauch their sensibilities. Horrible to relate, our children, who when they wield a brush seem capable of exquisitely tasteful audacities, love the poisonous fare that is provided for them and lap it up as though it were nectar and ambrosia.
In fact we parents may worry too much; we ourselves no less than our children seem to emerge from the comic books of infancy unscathed. The adult who today nicely discriminates between those Corots which are unreservedly to be admired and those which betray a fluffy hint of incipient vulgarity were once, if truth be told, as enthusiastic in their admiration for the drawings in the Billy Bunter stories or Chums as the worst of them. In matters of culture some of us, at all events, seem capable of growing up.
Nevertheless, when a children’s book does emerge which seems to us both wholesome and palatable we rush for it enthusiastically. It becomes a Christmas or birthday present which, we hope, will be not only acceptable to the child but an antidote to the poisons with which it has perforce been fed. In the Twenties the great cultural panacea was Edy Legrand’s Macao et Cosmage. That in itself should make us pause in our search for educational and artistic productions, for, unless the jaundiced eye of age be mistaken, this seems very much a period piece of Art Deco and, like so much Art Deco, distinctly third-rate.
A little later, and perhaps with equal wisdom, cultured parents fell with avidity upon Winnie-the-Pooh, the result of a harmonious collaboration between Ernest Shepard and A.A. Milne. This achieved a success that went far beyond the narrow cultural domain in which M. Legrand had exerted so strong an appeal; the book was received with rapturous gratitude not only in cultured homes but in homes which in some measure aspired to culture. Winnie was canonized and adored even in our ancient seats of learning, which indeed are rather fond of an occasion to unbend and relax, so that Winnie was actually clothed in the dignity of a learned tongue. Few of us have actually read Domus apud Pooh, but I imagine that it is a model of jocular Latinity and puts Winnie almost on a par—in academic circles—with Alice.
A time came when people began to tire of the winsome charm of Christopher Robin, and it was then Tim to the Rescue, written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, that claimed our admiration and saved the always precarious aesthetic aspect of our nurseries. Since then I do not think that any other artist has dominated this particular field of literature as much as did Shepard and Ardizzone. Neither of them was simply an illustrator of children’s books. Indeed both of them worked in a great variety of forms and media; both were serious and gifted artists and the one may be seen as the natural successor of the other. It seems altogether appropriate that Schocken Books should issue these two lavishly illustrated, well-documented, competently written studies which, oddly enough, are in almost but not quite the same format.
Shepard, whose long life began in 1879, was a student at the Royal Academy Schools and certainly a very gifted student to judge by the few examples of his early work here reproduced; it is clear also that he was an exceptionally gifted child. Then, after he had left the Academy, something happened: he went on making some very good drawings but he also made some very bad ones. Looking through the illustrations to the book edited by Rawle Knox, and remembering what one can of Punch and other publications, one gets the impression, not that Shepard was an artist who failed in early life, as has been the case with so many British painters (in fact Shepard seems to have done good work at almost every period of his career), but that he was consistently and continually unequal. “Unequal” is indeed a wild understatement.
Shepard never loses his visual curiosity, although he frequently mislays it. Again and again we are attracted by some sensitive piece of drawing from which we perceive that he has seen and been moved by nature and has recorded his sensations with delicate sincerity. In such drawings there are a kind of tidy description of contour and a very sure understanding of intervals which are hard to describe but delightful to observe. One can only say that we are intensely aware of the artist’s pleasure in his work, and we ourselves are pleased by it. In such drawings he is not dramatic or even imaginative; their strength lies in the artist’s ability very beautifully to state facts. If about 70 percent of the illustrations to this book were torn out we should have the record not of a great but of a very sensitive and workmanlike draftsman.
The trouble comes when we have to consider that awkward 70 percent. Some of the worst are intended to be funny, and we have to remember that Shepard was working for a humorous magazine for much of his life, and here the delicacy of his vision is replaced by bold and would-be effective linear generalizations. Then there are a great number of coy, winsome inventions in which truth is sacrificed in the interests of a dubious sentiment. There are a few unlucky attempts at more heroic themes for which Shepard had no aptitude at all. Here and there Dr. Jekyll gets confused with Mr. Hyde; there are, for instance, some competent-looking nude studies and children’s heads where a slick black pencil has added those few accents which can make a perfectly decent drawing look vulgar and, as they say, “effective,” and it is here, so I believe, that we come to the root of the trouble.
Shepard I believe was bothered by beauty. One of the great influences of his youth was Frank Dicksee, later Sir Frank Dicksee, president of the Royal Academy, one of the most ardent of the late Victorian devotees of Beauty. He painted Shepard’s mother, who certainly appears to have been immensely good-looking, and something of his agreeable flattery seems to reappear in Shepard’s self-portrait made while he was a student. The same influence may be discerned in other early works by Shepard’s including a rather inept study of his wife in fancy dress and other drawings of her and of their children in which Shepard’s gift for factual statement is overwhelmed by an unmanageable load of sweetness.
Beauty, as those who know Sir Frank’s later work may perhaps agree, is a dangerous goddess; for one thing she lives on such very poor terms with truth, and truth was always Shepard’s strong suit. For another thing she is deceptive, and that which we believe to be the genuine and eternal article turns out, as the years elapse, to have been no more than an evanescent and fugitive semblance of the real thing, a mere creature of fashion. Finally there is the awkward fact that if we accept beauty in the sense in which Sir Frank conceived her, one hardly knows what to do when the circumstances make her presence inappropriate.
The devotee of beauty is very much at the mercy of his subject, and I think that Shepard was at his best when his theme was sufficiently agreeable not to put him out and yet not so obviously romantic as to encourage him positively to wallow in beauty. He draws best in front of landscapes or of models who are not too obviously charming; when he has a pretty girl or a sweet child to portray he gets into trouble. The funny, the grotesque, the obviously ugly leaves him ill at ease and all too likely to fall back upon the easiest kind of cliché; and when the subject demands something like a serious or even a sublime treatment he wanders into an inept prettiness.
The circumstances of his life were, from the point of view of his development as an artist, unfortunate. Like most “black and white” artists in England at the beginning of the century, he wanted to work for Punch, and his talents were quite great enough to give him permanent employment on that paper. Probably his best work for Punch was in the slight but pretty decorative borders which he executed for Milne and for Knox. But Punch at that time, the beginning of the century, was still providing the British middle class with the kind of humor which consists largely in pointing out that children are childish and the lower classes vulgar. Shepard could do this kind of thing quite well enough to please his public, although it hardly brought out the best in him.
But Punch, in the days of its glory, had perfected, had indeed almost invented, a form which graphically served much the same purposes as the first editorial of The Times. This was the full-page cartoon, originally a bitter and irreverent satire consciously and aggressively making fun of the grandiose plan for decorating Parliament with frescoes depicting national glories, but presently becoming a medium through which the middle class uttered dignified rebuke or earnest exhortation. Here the tribal gods made regular appearances, here John Bull was serious and sensible, here Britannia was noble and heroic. H.F. Ellis, an assistant editor, gives in his contribution to this volume a notion of the almost reverential attitude of the younger men toward Sir Bernard Partridge, one of the most celebrated of the Punch cartoonists.
Sir Bernard Partridge—who, after all, had worked on the paper since 1891, overlapping by ten years the fabulous Tenniel whose connection, in turn, dated back to the 1850s, so that it was like lunching with W.G. Grace or a man who had been on familiar terms with the Duke of Wellington—Bernard lent an air of timeless distinction to the proceedings, relieved by an occasional quietly interjected reminiscence….
Sir Bernard, with his fluent but studious line, his complete confidence in the power of Punch to instruct and to correct the world, his completely humorless approach to life and politics, was in fact the last of the great cartoonists. Raven-Hill, his “junior” (who had been on Punch since about the turn of the century), was rather too modern and nervous in his drawing to achieve the same air of pontifical authority. But worse was to come; in the late Thirties Shepard took over.
Given the intellectual climate of the times it was probably impossible to find anyone capable of continuing the Punch tradition in the manner of Tenniel and Partridge. It was a period when, for their polemics, the young in Britain looked to Low in the Evening Standard and for humor to The New Yorker. But Shepard was a disastrous choice: it is astonishing that he accepted the post. Shepard was by this time celebrated, he had made a reputation for himself as a master of dainty art. But daintiness might be suitable enough for Winnie-the-Pooh or even for The Wind in the Willows, but for a political cartoon it was entirely out of place, and it was inevitable, when finally the paper decided that it must somehow drag itself into the twentieth century, that Shepard should go.
Competent, tasteful, pretty, and sometimes much better than pretty, such are the comments which come to mind when we consider the work of Shepard. The affectionate tributes of his friends do much to convince us that he was an agreeable human being whom one would have liked to have known. Only the contribution by Mr. Bevis Hillier, who compares Shepard to the Swedish watercolorist Carl Larsson, in which he may be right, and to Vermeer, in which I am pretty sure that he is wrong, attempts to place Shepard as an artist. Mr. Hillier also compares Shepard to Keene, in which I think he is more subtly wrong, for although there are line drawings by Keene which Shepard might very reasonably have admired, Keene is an excellent example of an artist who avoided just that sweetness, that cloying passion for beauty which so bedevilled the work of Shepard. In fact, in a sense, Ardizzone owes more to Keene than did his predecessor.
Keene was that rare person, an artist who, as Sickert perceived, was able to hold a middle course between the beautiful and the grotesque. On the one hand he avoided those perils which, as we have seen, beset the lover of beauty and were the undoing not only of Shepard but of the older du Maurier; on the other he refused that easier path which seeks fun in ugliness and offers, to those who are frightened by the subtleties of beauty, the easy solutions of the grotesque. His achievement was to give pictorial distinction to the commonplace, not at all an easy task and one which can only be achieved by those who know how to look at nature with a very high degree of attentive affection. His greatest disciple was Walter Sickert, and in this business of subject matter Sickert has had no more devoted follower than Ardizzone.
Ardizzone, as students of Gabriel White’s scholarly and readable book will realize, wandered with his pencil in a great many directions; nevertheless, there is also a specifically Ardizzone country: it lies in London off Maida Vale and is inhabited by a shabby, shambling, sleazy population of rotund pub crawlers, housewives, bookies, and tarts, also by children far less winsome and lovable, but rather more convincing than those whom Shepard created. There is also an abundance of dogs, cats, cyclists, and perambulators. His people have a family likeness and yet remain very much individuals. They eye each other, they converse, but usually we have to imagine their relationships, their private dramas and comedies.
Ardizzone is not a literary painter in the sense in which Hogarth or Gavarni or Daumier is “literary.” He does not compose dramas, group figures for dramatic effect, or strive to make a narrative visible to the uninstructed eye. Nature does not do that, or at least it does so very rarely; what nature gives and Ardizzone very scrupulously transcribes is a mood, a suggestive disposition of figures, a silent half-explicable drama such as that which we may sometimes observe in a lighted room when on an autumn evening someone has forgotten to draw the curtains.
In all this he is very close to Sickert, but in his technique he seems nearer to Constantin Guys; he describes by means of accent rather than by contour, using a chain of brief, abrupt, broken lines and then, taking a brush and using a succession of washes, he finds all the volume and all the atmosphere that he wants by means of an extremely adroit chiaroscuro. He looks all the time for mass and for rotundity. At one point he did use clay to describe a pair of lumpy but very lively prostitutes, and one could wish that he had done more work in three dimensions. Nevertheless, the great revelation of this volume is the color plates which, thanks to good printing, show what a really remarkable gift he has for rather subdued and very subtle harmonies.
The case for Ardizzone is greatly strengthened by his illustrations to his own story, Nicholas and the Fast Moving Diesel, a tale of childish dreams quite convincingly fulfilled, and also by his sensitive decoration of Dylan Thomas’s recollections—A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Here he uses tender, quiet, dirty color exactly appropriate to the text and superior to anything that Shepard could have achieved in similar circumstances.
Given this confrontation of evidence it is inevitable that the reviewer should make comparisons, inevitable also, perhaps, that one should prefer the, to us, more congenial idiom of Ardizzone. But by now Shepard should have acquired a period charm, while Ardizzone might be expected to be beginning to look rather passé. Twenty-five years ago, when he was at the height of his popularity, I wrote an article about him. This was my conclusion. He had, I said
a power indispensable to the illustrator, who must have such knowledge, respect and love for nature that he can, without improbability or a “composed” air, summon from the void those solid and convincing masses upon which his imaginary world must rest secure, a gift doubly indispensable to Ardizzone, who delights in the flow and collision of rotund curvilinear forms across his picture space…. His method is perfectly adapted to his purpose and it is this perhaps which makes him so enjoyable an artist. He is an artist…whose work is invariably pleasant and sometimes inspires feelings for which “pleasure” is very much too mild a word.
After a quarter of a century there is nothing here that I feel the need to unsay; there is no judgment of which I am unsure. Ardizzone looks to me as good as he ever did. In fact it seems to me that we both come out of this rather well.