The paintings behind David Shepherd in the cover photograph are some of his best known works, ‘Black Five Country’, ‘The Four Gentlemen of Tsavo’ and ‘Winter of 43, Somewhere in England’. These three works represent the three subjects for which he is most famous, the end of steam railways, wildlife (especially elephants) and aircraft. This large format book (33cm x 24½cm) was first published in 1985 by David & Charles and is now sadly long out of print as are the other titles featuring his work that they published. The book consists of approximately five thousand words by Cyril Littlewood, founder of the Young People’s Trust for Endangered Species by way of an introduction to David Shepherd and his work and roughly twenty to twenty-five thousand words of biographical detail by Shepherd himself plus often comprehensive descriptions of each of the sixty one featured paintings along with numerous sketches in both black and white and colour.
As can be seen in the two examples, above and below these paragraphs the book’s format is simple and elegant. Each featured painting is reproduced on the right hand page whilst the description by David as to how he came to produce the work is on the facing page with sketches filling in the page if there is room. In many cases the story he is telling about how the work was produced or received by the public or the commissioning client fills the page so there is no room for an additional sketch. It’s hard to believe that these paintings are the work of somebody who was rejected by the Slade School of Fine Art as having ‘no talent whatsoever’ when he applied to study there. As he explains in the biographical section of the book that he subsequently made his career in art at all was down to a chance meeting with professional artist Robin Goodwin at a party and despite Goodwin agreeing with the Slade he did agree to try to teach him.
Shepherd started off his commercial art three years after starting training with Goodwin and was painting aircraft. initially civilian and then military with several of his works hanging in the Officer’s Mess of various UK regiments but his big break came when he was flown out to Africa by the Royal Air Force and they didn’t want pictures of planes, as they saw enough of them, what they wanted was the wildlife and so he painted his first elephant and that really started his career. His very first career plan was to be a game warden in Africa and in fact he even flew out to Kenya as a young man and presented himself as prospective employee at a reserve only to be told to go home as they didn’t need an untrained and callow youth getting in the way of their work. Painting the wildlife many years after that initial rejection brought his early interest in conservation to the for and he would go on to raise a huge amount of money by selling wildlife prints for charity.
Shepherd’s fascination with steam trains went far beyond painting them, he actually purchased two from British Rail as they were being withdrawn, restored them to their original beauty and ran them on ‘The East Somerset Railway’ a preserved line he helped set up, although both locomotives are now owned by ‘The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’ another preserved line. Although I was first drawn to Shepherd’s works via the wildlife paintings it is his work showing the last days of United Kingdom steam that I most admire now. The book was really interesting in that it showed the development of his career from aircraft art which he often couldn’t sell even for £25 to the massively successful prints which really made his name with the general public. Nowadays you would need to spend in the order of £100,000 to purchase a Shepherd original although few of them are on the market. Sadly David Shepherd died in 2017 at the age of eighty six but the foundation he set up to continue his charitable work has raised over a million pounds over the years and continues to do excellent work with wildlife conservation in Africa and Asia.