David Shepherd: Before Elephants, There Were Aircraft

Winter of '43, Somewhere in England

by Brooke Chilvers

David Shepherd’s is a well-rehearsed life in its telling. The same tales oft repeated and all tracks covered; nothing further to expose.  Whether in definitive books, such as David Shepherd: The Man and His Paintings, which is both biography and autobiography, or in his interviews that can be called back to life on YouTube, there’s a single version and all parties involved are sticking to it.  So forgive me if I don’t deviate.  

The incredibly celebrated wildlife artist, best known for his jumbo elephants and bewitching tigers, who in his lifetime raised over £8 million for wildlife conservation, owes his success “99% to hard work and 1% to talent.”  That, and some divine intervention in the form of an effective mentor, “jobbing” marine and portrait artist, Robin Goodwin (1909–1996), who saw enough light somewhere in Shepherd’s six lousy bird paintings to decide to educate Shepherd into an artist.  It took three years.  

Shepherd was flown over London in a Comet for the aerial view of Westminster.

Goodwin’s was a good investment.  Shepherd (1931–2017), born the son of an advertising man and his wife, Margaret, could afford to be contemptuous of his critics and scornful of modern art because his own shows sold out.  Such as his first one-man show, in 1962, at the prestigious Tryon Gallery in London, and his 1967 show in New York.  In the 1980s, 76 paintings were sold by ballot in 20 minutes.  

Shepherd’s immediately iconic unlimited print, Wise Old Elephant, published by Solomon & Whitehead in 1962, was so popular it was even sold at Boots, the CVS Pharmacy of its time. The print is so emblematic it decorates the Trotters’ flat in the 1980s BBC sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.  Over 100,000 went out the door, launching Shepherd’s career as a wildlife artist.  Twenty-five years later, in 1987, to celebrate that career, he published the very similar Old Charlie, in a signed limited edition, although how many were printed is unclear. 

Another important feather was his 1969 commission to paint Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.  Soon enough, the man who attended a notable public school without it leading to one day of university or playing rugby, and was rejected on the spot by the Slade School of Fine Art, was awarded an Honorary Degree in Fine Arts by New York’s Pratt Institute (in 1973), and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1986.  

In 1969, Shepherd painted Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother

The terrible student whose early failures led him to believe he was destined to be a bus driver for Aldershot & District Traction, instead was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1980 and elevated to Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2008, along with numerous awards and honors for his generous donations to raise funds for conservation.  

It’s a long story, marked by fortunate coincidences, but long before David Shepherd sold his first African elephant to the RAF in 1962 in Kenya for the princely sum of £25, he paid the family bills with portraits from real life of Lockheed Constellations, Boeing Stratocruisers, and De Havilland Comets, eventually producing 20 aircraft paintings.  But the boy who’d watched dogfights during the Battle of Britain on his way to school, and got to sit a time or two in the cockpit of a crashed German plane, didn’t realize people were killing each other until he found an Iron Cross with a hole in the middle.

In those days, a simple permit allowed the artist to wander the still navigable Heathrow Airport in search of subjects.  Guys would even move aircraft so that he could get a compelling perspective or the light just right. He was flown over London in a Comet to work out his aerial views and skyscapes, such as his huge painting of Westminster, capturing the City of London then. (The original sold at Bonhams for £111,180 in 2022.)

Shepherd’s famously detailed painting of the Brabazon Hangar at Filton.

Shepherd painted away, and handed out his works, correctly betting the aviation industry would start commissioning his oils for its boardrooms.  In fact, the Chairman of British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC) made an exhibition of his paintings, which led to his first commissions.  When Capital Airlines in Washington, D.C., ordered 75 Viscount turbo-props, in order to better paint them, the artist was given lifts from the factory to Scotland to Iceland to Greenland to D.C., where he met the lovely secretary, Avril, whom he married in 1957, together raising four daughters. 

In those days, Shepherd would devote more than a week to a canvas, famously painting every girder and pane of glass in the Brabazon Hangar at Filton Airfield near Bristol, which was originally built to accommodate British civilian passenger airlines.  

Arnhem Bridge, 5 pm, The Second Day.

Shepherd’s commissions from the armed forces to paint World War II battle scenes, such as Arnhem Bridge, 5 pm, The Second Day, for the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, allowed him to fulfill his childhood dreams: flying in fighters, helicopters, and V-bombers such as the Lancaster; he even sailed on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, witnessing its busy flight decks from the perspective of standing next to a 20-ton Blackburn Buccaneer with twin Spey jet engines at full throttle.

Ironically, it was the RAF that changed his life when, in 1960, it flew him out to Kenya, to decorate the walls of the new Embakasi airbase, built to accommodate jet fighters, Hawker Hunters, and bombers.  But the airmen didn’t want just another portrait of another plane in the mess; instead, Shepherd painted a rhino chasing a Twin Pioneer aircraft on the runway.  The famous original hangs in the RAF Club in Piccadilly.  He returned home with dozens of commissions.  And the rest really is history.  

Also in 1960, Shepherd received an invitation from the Commander-in-Chief, British Forces Arabian Peninsula, to travel with the RAF to Aden to depict the life of the various squadrons based there.  Flying out in a Comet aircraft, Shepherd painted dhows and markets; he visited distant and dirty but magical places such as the Empty Quarter, Mukalla, and Shibam in Wadi Hadhramaut, which Shepherd named as one of the top three places in the world he had visited.    

Years later, Shepherd acknowledged the role the armed forces had played in his success.  In 1977, he painted Winter of ’43, Somewhere in England—a Lancaster being refueled, its bombs loaded and crewmen ready for another raid on Germany.  Shepherd spent three days sketching the last flying Lancaster, the City of Lincoln; a vicar provided a 1943 Hillman pick-up, and the RAF came up with the motorbike, bicycle, and even some actual bombs on an actual old trolley.  Shepherd even got the airport fire department to deposit 500 gallons of water to create the usual muddiness and reflective oil slicks. Shepherd signed, numbered, and donated all 850 prints, raising £96,000 for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund.  

In 2010, he also raised money for the Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park, honoring the more than 55,000 aircrew who died in World War II.  After one of his flights in a Lancaster, Shepherd remarked, “I kept thinking about the crews crossing the Channel in the dark and being shot at. Such courage is remarkable.”  

Brooke Chilvers read that many of David Shepherd’s paintings can still be found in RAF messes around the world.