Having so loved Drawn from Memory the first volume of E H Shepard’s memoires recently I had to quickly acquire the second volume, and once it arrived I wanted to read it. Drawn from Memory; carries on the story of the young Ernest’s life from the time of his mother’s death, when he was a young boy, until he marries. Illustrated by author – the man famous for his illustrations of children’s literary classics like The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh – this book is every bit as lovely as the first volume.
“Mother always encouraged my drawing and, although she had little talent herself, would show me how to use my paints. We made plans together for when I grew up and became an artist myself. She, almost more than Father, inspired me to persevere. After her death I missed her companionship terribly and determined to justify her faith in my talent.”
A young Ernest accompanied his elder brother Cyril to St. Johns Wood preparatory school ‘Oliver’s’ for a while before transferring his education to St. Pauls public school where Ernest’s Uncle Willie was a schoolmaster. Here Ernest tries hard to not stand out too much, enjoys playing rugger, and seems to have not really encountered many problems, at St. Paul’s Ernest was unsurprisingly already doing well in the drawing class. By the time he was fifteen Ernest education was focussed mainly on his artist studies; when he began, while technically still a schoolboy, to spend some of his time at Heatherley’s art school. Later he became a student at the Royal Academy art schools. During these years Ernest meets Florence Chaplin herself a gifted art student – who he is later to marry – while making lifelong friends among his other fellow students.
“The prize distribution at the Academy Schools that winter was really happy event for me. I had won a medal for a painted figure and ten pounds for a set of life drawings. But what pleased me even more was that Florence Chaplin had won the £40 prize for a mural. The subject was ‘The Procession of the Hours’ and she treated it by showing the Horae as female figures. It was lovely both in colour and design and the award was a most popular one, all agreeing that it was by far the best. She was later commissioned to carry out the design for the nurses’ dining-room at Guy’s Hospital. It was a big undertaking, measuring twenty-five feet in length, and took her over a year to paint. Many years later I was able to buy back the original drawing, and it hangs in my drawing room today”
Ernest’s relationship with his family, his brother Cyril, sister Ethel, his father and a collection of aunts, is close, and described with quite obvious affection. Ernest’s architect father is supportive of his youngest son’s artistic ambitions and despite not having an awful lot of money – gives his children some wonderfully memorable holidays in Devon, Wales and Germany. In Kingswear, Devon, Ernest and his siblings are re-introduced to Gussie Rogers, an old friend of their mother’s; spending some very happy times with Gussie and her husband Groby to whom Ernest particularly took to.
Shepard’s writing style is a fairly simple one, there’s a definite nostalgia about his recollections without any unnecessary sentimentality. Set against a backdrop of late Victorian life, remembering Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, and her death a few years later which plunged the entire country into silent mourning, ‘Drawn from Life’ is a wonderful evocation of a time long gone. I think so often we think of people living in late Victorian society as being really rather dour, and unlike ourselves. Yet the people in E H Shepard’s memoires certainly don’t come across like that. Whether it’s playing hockey among the antique school’s statuary casts or attempting to cycle from London to Bristol, Ernest’s memories of fun, friendship family and love are enormously engaging, and the people we meet in his company are portrayed with real warmth and are every bit as likeable as Ernest himself.
As we bid a fond farewell to young Ernest at the end of this volume, he is just twenty four years old, has just sold a painting in the Royal Academy summer exhibition. On his wedding day as he moves into a small country cottage with his dear Pie (Florence), has seventy pounds in the bank and is looking forward to the future with optimism.