Who is the most popular British artist of the Twentieth century? Not the trendiest, or the most successful, or the richest, or the best, but the most popular. If you were to conduct a census to find out whose drawings are in the most homes in this country, you would quickly discover that it was no race.
The winner by an enormous margin would be a gentleman called Ernest Howard Shepard, who died in 1976 at the age of 97. He may not be known by name to many of the people who enjoy his work, but his actual drawings are as instantly recognisable as pillar boxes or thunder and lightning.
Twice in his life Shepard struck gold, once when he was hired to illustrated the Winnie the Pooh stories, and again when he did the same for Toad of Toad Hall and his friends.I believe that Pooh in particular needed Shepard because without the drawings, some of the tales tended to get a bit sickly-wickly.
The world, of course, had its revenge by taking hold of some of the Christopher Robin poems and changing them into recitations which would raise a blush in a Rugby League after-match communal bath. And yet there must be something about those little rhymes.
It is interesting that one of the most popular of all the Muppet recordings is the one where Kermit sings that curious little song about sitting halfway up or half-way down the stairs.
Before he died, Shepard performed a charitable deed of pure saintliness. By the time he reached 90, he had amassed more than 300 original sketches of his animal friends, and when I say that one of them changed hands for nearly £2,000, you don't have to be Albert Einstein to realise that the old boy was sitting on a gold mine. However, when you get as old as that, sitting on a gold mine, or indeed sitting on anything at all, can be very uncomfortable, so Shepard, instead of flogging his life's work, donated everything to the nation.
This week at the Holburne Museum in Bath, that work goes on public exhibition, including several of the drawings he did to illustrate his own book of childhood memories, which brings me to a new point.
In that autobiography, "Drawn from memory," there is a sketch of some firemen on a horse-drawn engine dashing to put out a great blaze. This turned out to be the famous fire at Whiteley's department store in Westbourne Grove, which took place in 1886. That drawing of the firemen and the horses, which is really very good, was done by Shepard at the time, which means that he was then seven years old!
The article goes on to talk about the Disney films and spin-offs and ends by reminding us that Tigger claims to be able to climb trees, eat acorns, swallow thistles, swim rivers, and do all sorts of things he can't really do at all!
It's interesting to note that when this piece was written Ernest Shepard's work was selling for a couple of thousand pounds. While in more recent times, original drawings have realised record prices, especially those of Winnie the Pooh which now sell for tens of thousands of pounds.
Found in; Darkie the life story of a pony published by Country Life in 1950.
***Please note*** the exhibition mentioned in the newspaper article took place in May 1979.