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Archive for the ‘E.H. Shepard’ Category

For anyone already thinking about their Christmas shopping (or their own Christmas wishlist), may I direct you to Slightly Foxed?  On December 1st they are issuing two very wonderful childhood memoirs from the illustrator E.H. Shepard: Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life.

Shepard, best known for his classic illustrations for A.A. Milne’s children’s books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, grew up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London.  Drawn from Memory looks fondly back at the year he was seven while Drawn from Life covers a much longer period, picking up later on in Shepard’s youth and following him through the end of childhood, into art school, and right up until his marriage.  Both books are lovingly told, beautifully illustrated, and unexpectedly moving.  I love them dearly.

I read both books back in 2014 and lamented at the time that they were out of print, saying of Drawn from Memory that “this book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.”  I’m delighted they thought so, too!  I can’t wait to add these to my beloved collection of Slightly Foxed editions.

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Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.

TheSmallHouseatAllington

1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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Drawn from LifeAfter reading the delightful Drawn From Memory, I could not wait to pick up Drawn From Life by E.H. Shepard.  While the first book focuses on one year of Shepard’s childhood, this volume lets us follow him through more than a decade of his life, from the death of his beloved mother when he was ten to school and then art school, right up to his marriage in his early twenties.

Because of the large time period covered in this book, Shepard does not linger lovingly over small events the way he did in Drawn From Memory.  Or rather he does, but not as frequently.  He tells of the time spent living with his aunts immediately after his mother’s death, of his school days, of his joyous family holidays in France, Germany, and various regions of England, and of his beginnings as an artist.  I loved hearing about his time at art school and his first (shared) studio.  Shepard and his friends do not seem to have had any pretentions of artistic grandeur.  They come across as nice middle class boys and girls, working very hard to earn a living with their pens, pencils, and brushes.  Luckily, there seem to have been plenty of contests with cash prizes and scholarship awards to help keep them afloat. P1080166 P1080168

The book picks up some structure towards the end, after Shepard realises he is in love with his close friend and fellow art student, Florence Chaplin.  Tortured by this revelation, he makes himself almost sick during a summer holiday, pondering all the reasons why he can never tell Florence of his love: she is cleverer than him, she is three years older than him, and, even if she would have him, how could he, with no steady income, support a wife?  Thankfully, this angst-ridden holiday ends with a visit to a close family friend, a woman who wisely reprimands Shepard for his black outlook and reminds him that “no girl ever minds being told she is loved”.  Florence, or Pie as she is known (Shepard’s own nickname was Kip), isn’t quite as sure of her own feelings when Shepard declares himself but she soon realises that friendship has also turned to love on her side.  Pooling their joint earnings (Florence was working on a mural at Guy’s Hospital at the time), the two decide to marry.P1080163 P1080165

One of the most touching things about these final chapters, as Shepard and Florence prepare to start their new life together in a small cottage outside of London, is how closely involved Shepard’s siblings are in the preparations for his wedding.  After their father’s death, the three Shepard siblings lived together.  Though Ernest was the youngest, he was the first to marry and both Edith and Cyril were delighted for him.  On the day of his engagement, Shepard describes coming home and spending the night talking over his future with Cyril in the bedroom they shared.  Once he takes the lease on a decrepit cottage in the country, both Edith and Cyril commit themselves to helping him make it not just habitable but cosy: Edith and Ernest camp in the cottage while the work is being done, with Cyril coming down from London on the weekends to help.  They are a close-knit trio and it is wonderful to see that the sibling affection from childhood only intensified with age.

The book ends in 1904 with Shepard’s marriage but also with the promise of a successful future: he has just sold a painting for £100 and been introduced to the senior cartoonist at Punch.  Wide-spread fame was another twenty years off but he was firmly set on his path.  The only sadness I felt at the book’s end was knowing that there was no third volume of memoirs to detail his adult years.  What a loss!

UPDATE: As of December 2018, this (alongside Drawn from Memory) is back in print from Slightly Foxed.

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Drawn From MemoryPublished in 1957 but focused on events that took place in 1887, Drawn From Memory by E.H. Shepard is an utterly charming memoir about Shepard’s life as a seven-year old boy growing up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London. It is also, as Shepard’s advises in his introduction, a memoir of the last entirely happy year the family had, which adds a special poignancy to the entire book; shortly afterwards, Shepard’s adored mother became ill and then died, leaving her devoted family devastated. But while she lived, what a happy family they were!

The youngest of three children born to a London architect and his wife, Shepard grew up in a home where the arts were encouraged. His parents moved in artistic circles (Frank Dicksee was a family friend and Shepard’s maternal grandfather was a member of the Royal Academy) and from an early age they encouraged Shepard to become an artist. Though the child did not have any intention of doing so (he “considered an artist’s life to be a dull one and looked for something more adventurous”), his early drawings, some of which are included in the book, were certainly impressive and I can understand why his father showed them off with such pride to his artist friends. Even if they are “mostly concerned with battle scenes.”

E.H. Shepard - Battle Scene

But, for the most part, this is not a book about a budding artist. It is a book about childhood memories. Shepard recalls the figures of his home life (his nurse, the cook, his elder sister Ethel and brother Cyril), devotes a marvellous chapter to his four easily shocked maiden aunts, and recounts events that impressed themselves on his young mind. Some of these events were of general significance – such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, an event which Shepard celebrated with the purchase of a Belgian flag (“As Cyril and Ethel had each bought a Union Jack, I thought a change was called for.”) – but most of them are episodes significant only to the Shepard family. He remembers Christmas celebrations, a visit to the pantomime, an expedition to a tennis party in Highgate, and family holidays to Eastbourne and, best of all, a farmhouse in Kent. The chapter devoted to “Pollard’s Farm” is as perfect description of childhood bliss as I have ever read. They are spoiled there with food, freedom, and proximity to animals. Of all the happy moments in the book, this is by far the happiest.E.H. Shepard - JubileeE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, BreakfastE.H. Shepard - Pollard's Farm, Hay Loft

But there are moments scattered through that remind us that this perfect happiness cannot last. Knowing that Shepard’s mother would soon become ill is difficult enough – that poor young woman, about to be separated from her lovely family – but towards the end Shepard reduced me to tears by mentioning coming across his brother’s grave in France during the First World War. Cyril died in July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A. Milne’s books and particularly of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were such an important part of my childhood that it feels particularly appropriate to now know more about his childhood.  This book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.

UPDATE: As of December 2018, this is back in print – from Slightly Foxed no less!

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