Tuesday, July 28, 2020


Time puts handcuffs on us all.  Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes bad.  But for certain artists, time creates a special challenge.

In the 17th century, the great poet John Milton went blind at age 44.  He lamented that he had been robbed of the time necessary to fulfill his god-given talents:
When I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account...
The English illustrator Raymond Sheppard was diagnosed with cancer around age 33.

As a boy, Sheppard had won several prizes for his drawing ability.  He worked diligently to become an artist, spending countless hours at London zoos learning to draw the birds and animals he loved.

Sheppard became a successful illustrator at a relatively young age.  (A wider variety of his illustration art can be viewed on line at his gallery.) In addition to magazine and book illustrations, he was commissioned to create a book on How to Draw Birds (1940) which became an international classic, as well as Drawing at the Zoo (1949) and More Birds to Draw (1956).  But his cancer put Sheppard in a race against time and he lost that race in 1958, at the age of 45.

I would like to say two things about Raymond Sheppard.

First, even though he was running out of time, Sheppard refused to take short cuts. For years he fought the pain of cancer and the dulling effects of morphine, steering a course between scylla and charybdis, trying to make sure that his drawings turned out as well as he could possibly make them.  It would have been so easy to cut corners with a faster, looser style but Sheppard would have none of it.  I spoke with his daughter Christine who recalled that her father was "not a satisfied artist.  I witnessed his angst.  He'd say, 'No, that's not quite right, I haven't got that right."  It's difficult to maintain high standards even when you have a long life ahead of you.  When you are mortally ill, each decision to go back and "do it better" comes with a dearer price.  

Second, Sheppard realized that the job of art is to rise above realistic details and find the poetry in your subject.  Making hyper-realistic drawings might've served as a helpful diversion from cancer, but Sheppard wasn't interested in diversions, or mindless copying from nature.  He wrote, "When you look at a bird your eye is full of a lot of really unimportant details.... It takes quite a lot of study to be able to see properly, and quickly too, the important shapes and main lines of rhythm of a pose."   He criticized "those awfully boring and tedious sort of 'feathered maps'... looking as flat as pancakes in natural history books."  

A baby rhinoceros sleeping in the straw 

Sheppard was robbed by time, but he responded like a true artist. 


Tom said...

Nice to hear what someone finds important when one discovers they are on their own. Great post David.

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

A moving post, David. And lovely drawings.

Vanderwolff said...

In this gray and somber span we're all going through, how important to remember that talent and achievement (of any sort---personal, professional or artistic) need not meekly succumb to an impending edit of our story.

Thank you David.

chris bennett said...

Thank you for this heartfelt post David, and also to Tom, Sid and Vanderwolff above for their replies in the same spirit.

comicstripfan said...

So, viewing Sheppard’s work and ruminating over his comments, we recall another poet over 100 years after Milton : “This life's dim windows of the soul / Distorts the heavens from pole to pole / And leads you to believe a lie / When you see with, not through, the eye.”

Unknown said...

Sheppard has always been one of my favourite artists. Thanks for introducing him to a wider audience.

You might do a post (or posts) on Charles Tunnicliffe, too. He lived much longer, so his work covers a wider range. He shared with Sheppard the illustration of "The Old Man and the Sea".

Some of Tunnicliffe's strongest work is the wood engravings that he made in the 1930s for books by Henry Williamson, such as "The Peregrine's Saga". Also not to be missed are the measured drawings: there is a large book of these.


People like Sheppard and Tunnicliffe were master artists, yet any book on "Art of the Twentieth Century" ignores them.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Yes, it's certainly a clarifying moment when you discover you're on your own. It's easy to react with despair or various forms of sedation, but Sheppard's response seems noble.

Sidarth Chaturvedi-- Many thanks, I'm glad you like these. Most are unpublished but deserve a wider audience.

Vanderwolff-- Thank you. Yes, there wasn't a whole lot of glamour or money in Sheppard's response, but all these years later we can look at his art and appreciate the strength of his character at work here.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- Yes, there is a lot of heart in the creation of these drawings. Sheppard's daughter Christine reports that her father never discussed his illness in front of his children. He protected them to the last. Whatever ordeal he suffered, he handled in a very stoic way.

comicstripfan-- Ahhh, William Blake. I think Sheppard would probably agree.

Unknown-- That is quite an extraordinary web site about Tunnicliffe, a real labor of love. I think that's the solution to the problem you pose regarding lack of attention to talented artists. Until the economics of big art books changes, web sites such as the one you shared are a real gift, and will spread that talent around.

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