After 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.
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.
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!