Raymond Sheppard, 1913-1958

Raymond Sheppard was one of the most powerful communicators of what the world – at its most lovely and exciting – looked like, to anyone brought up in Britain shortly after the last War. Lively, colourful, tender, bold, exotic and homely: Sheppard could evoke, with a few deft strokes, both the comforts of the familiar and the magic of birds and beasts from another world.

Following his early death, in 1958, Sheppard’s work, for a time, fell out of favour. It was dismissed as being purely commercial, simply illustrative. Those now growing up in the 1960s were developing an understanding that exciting art was about many things - but not a description, however engaging, of the natural world.

Art might be an extravagant self-expression, or the cool, pared-down synopsis of universal forms, or the challenge of popular culture. It was anti-traditional, it was anything but comfortable. It could be ironic, hypnotic, defiant, witty, explosive and shocking. It was not the kind of thing ordinary people could hang in their houses. What is more, art was being made in the new world, in North America, especially in New York. And, as a consequence, young British artists at this time – including, for example, Richard Hamilton, who died in 2011, and David Hockney, a generation younger, both of whom studied at the Royal Academy Schools after the War – looked to the United States for inspiration. Theirs was a joyful, anti-establishment, celebration of the transient, the mass-produced, the youthful, the sexy, the commercial. The curious thing is that, though many ‘real’ artists embraced the imagery of popular culture, advertising and the comic book - an artist such as Raymond Sheppard, who had made his living producing advertisements and book illustrations, was more-or-less ignored. His work was not on an heroic scale, it was not barbed or ironic and it certainly was not challenging convention. It seemed, indeed, inspired by no higher motive than to express an enjoyment of everyday life and make a living: hardly art, at all.

Sheppard’s training, in the early 1930s, at the LCC School of Photoengraving and Lithography – clearly a School intended to focus on technical and commercial design, but also the School where Edmund Blampied, Paul Nash and Joan Hassall had studied, earlier in the century – launched him as a freelance artist in the mid-30s.

In 1939, Sheppard started painting along the Thames at weekends, with members of the Langham Sketching Group. By 1946, members of this group, which included Jack Merriott (1901-1968), formally constituted themselves as the Wapping Group (still going), whose aim was to paint the London docklands, outdoors, in all weathers.

This focus on constant study from nature lay at the heart of all of Sheppard’s work. From his early years, he had frequented the London Zoo, in Regent’s Park, drawing the animals and birds and learning, as he said, to capture ‘just the right lines, to suggest an attitude or rhythm momentarily observed’[1]. During the War, when he worked for the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Wing, he made sketching trips, through the landscapes of Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire and then in France, around the Marne and the Cevennes, where he was later based.

Following his marriage and the arrival of children, his family members – wife, daughter, Christine, and son, Michael – were his constant models. There is a large number of cool, intimate, delicious, family studies. Sheppard worked in watercolour, pen and ink, in one of his, ‘favourite mediums ..black conté chalk on toned paper, with white chalk for the lights’[2], or in red and brown chalk. These family drawings are touching, but never sentimental. They are supremely personal studies, full of subtle tenderness. Sometimes, the children are posed, handling a toy, just about to jump off a chair. On other occasions, his family is captured mid-movement, or in the awkward relaxation of sleep, limbs awry, hair adrift.

Thus, throughout his all-too-brief career, Sheppard strengthened and refined the fluency of his line, the directness of his colour, the rhythm of his compositions; and it is exactly these qualities which make his best work so poignant and so compelling - both his ‘fine’ art and his commercial output.

His dedication to his craft helped Sheppard to establish a successful career, producing three books for The Studio Publications’ Howto Draw series[3], and exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1946, 1950, 1952 and 1955. It was also Sheppard who, in the 1940s, produced the beautiful illustrations on the soft covers of the ‘Easy Study Series’ of books about the natural world: for example, the sinuous neck of the heron, with beady eye and fish in beak, introducing, My Book of Birds. It was Sheppard’s illustrations which introduced readers to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in the 1950s; and, again, Sheppard, working with C.F. Tunnicliffe, who illustrated the splendid 1953 edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, in 1954, and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi were both conjured by Sheppard. His style was also supremely well-suited to large posters, which began to lend colour to the British environment in the 1950s. The crush of animals – elephant, dromedary, giraffe, lion, polar bears and sumptuously pink flamingos – which boldly advertised Chessington Zoo, is a wonderfully memorable image. And, perhaps most startling of all, one of Sheppard’s favourite animals, the tiger, leapt out of the picture, promising power to post-War motorists - and securing for Esso petroleum one of the most well-known logos of all.

© Dr Hilary Taylor

[1] Paul Liss & Sacha Llewellyn, Raymond Sheppard, Master Illustrator, 2010, p.59.

[2] Liss, Op.cit., p. 15.

[3] John Skeaping and C.F. Tunnicliffe also contributed to this series.