Today in Literary History – March 24, 1976 – E.H. Shepard, illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh, dies at 96

E. H. Shepard, the artist who created the iconic illustrations for A. A. Milne’s series of Winnie-the-Pooh books and Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows, died on March 24, 1976 at the age of 96.

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Ernest Howard Shepard was born in London on December 10, 1879. Shepard’s parents – his father was an architect and his mother was a watercolourist – recognized his artistic talents at an early age and encouraged him in his pursuits.

Shepard graduated from The Royal Academy of Arts and decided on a career as an illustrator. He illustrated editions of Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Thackeray’s Henry Esmond.

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He worked for many years as an illustrator for Punch magazine, the era’s leading humour publication. He contributed political cartoons and illustrations to Punch from 1907 to 1921 when he became a staff member.

He was lead cartoonist for Punch from 1945 to 1953, a post he adored since it was the one held for the last half of the 19th century by Sir John Tenniel, the creator of the illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books.

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Shepard’s close association with A.A. Milne began in 1923 when Milne, who had himself been an assistant editor at Punch, submitted a series of children’s poems to the magazine, called When We Were Young. The verses had been written about his three-year-old son, Christopher Robin.

As a staff member Shepard was chosen to illustrate the verses as they were serialized in Punch. Milne was so pleased with the results that he asked Shepard to illustrate the full book, which was published to great acclaim the following year.

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Milne followed up on this success with more books about Christopher Robin and his toy playmates in the Hundred Acre Wood. Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926, followed by Now We are Six in 1927, and House at Pooh Corner in 1928.

All were illustrated by Shepard. Milne was keenly aware of the important role that the warm and evocative illustrations played in  the series’ success. He gratefully offered Shepard a large share in the books’ royalties.

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Shepherd was faithful to the look of Christopher Milne’s actual toy animals, but he ultimately based Winnie-the-Pooh himself on his own son’s stuffed bear Growler. (Years later, Growler was given to Shepard’s grand-daughter, whose neighbour’s dog destroyed it.)

Shepherd spent much of the rest of his career drawing Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations and many of them now sell for record amounts at auction.

He only produced one oil painting of Winnie, and it sold for $243,000 in 2000 and is on display in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the city that the original bear in the London Zoo, that became Mine’s inspiration, was named after.

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Shepard also illustrated another iconic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s comic woodland fable which was first written to amuse his son.

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Shepard much preferred his Wind in the Willows drawings and in his later years complained, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that “that silly bear” had overshadowed his entire career. But, how many artists get to create such a lasting part of nearly a century’s worth of children’s imaginations?

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