This utterly delightful memoir would probably have remained forever unknown to me had it not been for a lovely review of it by The Captive Reader. I quite literally went in search of it right away although not a big reader of non-fiction I do really like these kinds of childhood memoirs. I am so very glad I found a copy, this book is very much a keeper, and one I know I shall return to.
E.H Shepard is remembered and loved by many for his wonderful drawings which illustrated classic works of children’s literature, particularly Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. Here he has illustrated his memoir of childhood with drawings very reminiscent of the works for which he is best known. Included are also drawings he made when only seven years old, and long before he had any real ambitions to make his living from his art.
“I was born in St. John’s Wood, at No. 55 Springfield Road, and I can remember the nursery there and the garden at the back. Each morning my father would come in and dance me round before he went to business. I can also remember the cotton frocks that I wore with plaid bows on my shoulders and a plaid sash round my middle; under these I wore little drawers, rather tight and scratchy for small legs. Getting ready for a party, Mother would frizz my hair with a curling iron.”
Ernest Shepard was born in to an upper middle class family in 1879 living with his family in St. Johns Wood in London at a time during the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Ernest’s father was an architect; his family moved in fairly artistic circles themselves, and certainly encouraged the early artistic talent that Ernest showed. His was a landscape of streets crammed with horse-drawn hansom cabs and buses, a known and recognisable policeman to be found on the corner of his street.
It is to this world that E.H Shepard returns us with affection and nostalgia in this wonderfully warm and engaging memoir. Drawn from Memory recounts the very earliest years of Ernest’s Victorian childhood, a truly happy idyll in which he lived in the years before his mother’s death. Ernest was the youngest of three children, his older brother Cyril and sister Ethel feature alongside his lovingly drawn parents, who so obviously provided a deeply loving environment for their children to grow up in. The Shepard’s naturally enough for a family of their type, had servants too, and they are remembered here too, Ellen, Martha and Lizzie women who fed and cared for Ernest, and who appear here as an extension of his family.
“On the whole it was nice to be back home again. Martha, all smiles, opened the front door. The Fire was burning in the dining room, and Lizzie prepared a very particular tea with crumpets. Sambo joined us. Purring and fussing round us all. Father and Mother had a lot of letters to read, and we children sat back feeling very comfortable and content. The trees outside were beginning to turn, and the old messenger man was sweeping up the leaves. Presently the lamplighter, with his staff, came along the Terrace, and one by one the lamps were lit. It really was rather nice to be home once more.”
Children were not so very different then as they are today; Ernest recalls his and his brother’s irritation at having birthdays close to Christmas, and people who would make one present do for both occasions, how unfair that is for children unlucky enough to be born in December. Particularly memorable is Ernest’s wonderfully happy portrayal of summer weeks spent on a farm as the hops are harvested, it must surely have been one of his fondest of his childhood memories. When Queen Victoria celebrates her golden jubilee – the streets of London are thronged with people celebrating and watching the parade. The three Shepard children are each allowed to go and buy themselves a flag for the occasion, but Ernest having seen so much red, white and blue, wants his flag to be different – and so proudly purchases the Belgian flag. Seaside holidays, stays with his maiden aunts, illness and kindergarten games are all recalled with love and humour by a man who so obviously benefitted from an idyllic childhood – although this time was destined to be so short.
In the preface E H Shepard warns that his memoir depicts the last truly happy year of his childhood – before his adored mother was taken from them so tragically early. This knowledge is felt by the reader throughout this delightfully happy book, and certainly lends it an undercurrent of poignancy. So when Ernest makes almost casual reference to coming across his beloved brother’s grave in 1916, I felt it like an almost physical shock. Having suffered these two tragic losses – it is no wonder that his memoir of this one supremely happy time is so deeply felt.
Drawn from memory was such a complete joy to read that when I was only a couple of chapters in I found myself searching ebay for the next volume Drawn from Life – naturally it was a little more expensive – but I have a feeling it will be worth it. I await its arrival with eagerness.