You may be forgiven for thinking that the proposed four year commemoration programme for the centenary of the First World War has rather ground to a halt. Once Paul Cummins’s incredible display of ceramic poppies was packed away, everything else went, well, all quiet about the Western Front. Perhaps, unlike the actual event, the remembrance programme really was ‘all over by Christmas’ 2014. But never fear, as the hundredth anniversary of the Somme campaign approaches, you can expect a flurry of related activities to acknowledge one of the most terrible and emotionally scarring periods the British Army ever experienced.
1915 may not be considered a particularly ‘sexy’ year in terms of battles, hence the relative silence this year, but the wonderful House of Illustration has snuck in a brilliant exhibition celebrating the Great War drawings of illustrator E. H. Shepard, most famous for being the visual creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. But Shepard was a regular contributor to Punch the satirical magazine long before he become associated with the honey-loving bear in the Hundred Acre Wood, and this exhibition recognises the anniversary of Shepard’s recruitment into the army where he became a serving officer in the Royal Artillery stationed in the Somme region and participating in a number of significant battles.
Fascinatingly, the House of Illustration not only brings together his satirical drawings, which continued to be officially published throughout the war, along with the accurate terrain sketches Shepard did for his unit which helped to position artillery fire. The ways in which illustrators contributed to the development of intelligence in the war is certainly understudied, and not something an art exhibition has ever fully covered before, particularly in a conflict that is seen as technologically driven and dominated by the inhumanity of mechanisation.
I’ve previously written about the development of aerial photography and how older technologies were being repurposed during this period, so to see this sit alongside the idea of a man and a sketchbook providing to-scale drawings of the Front to add to the available intelligence absolutely reinforces this notion of tradition and modernity meeting and adapting in this conflict. And through Shepard’s remarkable work, we also see the merger of art and function, with the sign text making the point that while you can see his drawings of a wood, perhaps, there is a ruler above it to indicate scale for application purposes (i.e. gauging gun range), but Shepard has also provided considerable detail in the shape of individual leaves. What this is doing is adding even greater nuance to our understanding of the experience of the war and how men responded to it.
Another more common response was satire and one of the mechanisms through which men coped was to find humour in their situation. From Trench newspapers to reviews and shows (which Shepard was involved with), satirising the people and circumstances of war was a key leisure activity and Shepard’s cartoons were at the forefront of this, published in Punch and other magazines. That stoical humour is one of the most interesting effects of war, demonstrating the extent to which men retained their humanity in the lengthy periods between engagements.
There is a long tradition in Britain of political satire dating right back to Hogarth’s stinging evocations of city life and morality in the eighteenth-century and the numerous newspaper cartoons lampooning politicians and events which followed in the nineteenth century. Shepard’s work on the First World War falls neatly into this category, so as well as seeing his work in the context of his overall development as an illustrator, it can also be viewed as part of this historic ritual of satirising important moments and people. Among his best work includes a cheeky picture of a tommy swathed in innumerable layers of clothes he’s been sent for Christmas which mocks the practice of sending gifts to men at the Front. The soldier is wearing about 5 shirts, huge mittens, furry boots and is smoking about 8 cigarettes and a pipe, all with a look of delight on his face. It’s a wonderful picture which really sets the tone for the warmth of Shepard’s images in this exhibition, never bitter but more of a knowing wink at the absurdity of their situation.
Another common concern among all servicemen was the supposed corruption at home and, as the conflict drew on, the seeming indifference of civilians to its outcome. Men frequently complain that while on leave they observe civilians being bored of the war, and one of Shepard’s works taps into this frustration by showing a cartoon strip of a rich looking man passing a newsboard every day. He expresses alarm at Zeppelin raids and then a modest delight at successful British counterattacks, he is pleased by a Russian victory but the final scene shows him collapsed entirely on the floor by the news of heavy taxation at home – Shepard is making the point that civilians can only be really engaged by news that actually affects them.
Throughout this exhibition, Shepard’s works sit alongside one another and there is a clear contrast between those done as pen sketches and his painted pieces, the latter being a little less effective than the delicacy of his ink work. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how varied Shepard’s opportunities were for art throughout the war and, with over a hundred pieces presented here, the sheer volume he was able to produce is impressive, as well as watching his heavily shaded pen sketches becoming lighter and simpler as time passed. A few post-war pieces are included at the end show his development as an artist and see how this work paved the way for his eventual engagement with A. A. Milne.
The House of Illustration is probably one of the most consistent galleries in London, producing a number of excellent exhibitions since it opened, including those on Quentin Blake, Mac Connor and most recently the wonderful Ladybird book images. And here they’ve done it again with a sensitive and insightful exhibition about E H Shepard’s Great War experience. Not only have they opportunely seized on a quiet moment in the overall commemoration agenda to present these works which should mean it attracts the attention it deserves, but it genuinely offers a new perspective on a much studied conflict.
E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War is at the House of Illustration until 10 January. Tickets are £7 for adults (£7.70 with Gift Aid) and concessions are available.