East Somerset founder David Shepherd: colossus of conservation


The world has been in mourning for East Somerset Railway founder David Shepherd, who died aged 86 on September 19, after losing a 10-week fight in hospital with Parkinson’s Disease. After becoming an international wildlife artist and later a leading conservationist, he also bought two steam ‘beasts’ from British Rail in 1967 and helped transform our rail landscape, writes Robin Jones.

One of three children, Richard David Shepherd CBE FRSA FGRA was born on April 25, 1931, in Hendon, north London, the son of Raymond Shepherd, an advertising man, and Margaret (nee Williamson), a housewife.

David Shepherd aged 81 with Black Prince at Bishops Lydeard on the West Somerset Railway October 6, 2012. DON BENN

He was sent to Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, where he underachieved academically and also developed an intense dislike of the school sport, rugby.

He left school as soon as he could, and his father financed a trip to Kenya where he could realise his big ambition of becoming a game warden, only to be immediately told by the head game warden in Nairobi he was not wanted.

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He came home after working as a hotel receptionist on the Kenyan coast, and considered two career paths – a job as a bus driver, or as an artist. He applied for a place at the Slade School of Art in London… where he was told that he had no talent for art.

By chance at a party he met Robin Goodwin, a jobbing marine artist who took him on as an assistant at his studio in Chelsea, where portraits and marine subjects were painted. By 1953 Goodwin had taught David everything he could.

David Shepherd with a herd of African elephants, one of many threatened species whose profile he has raised. DAVID SHEPHERD COLLECTION

David contributed to the annual exhibition of artists’ work on the railings of the Victoria Embankment, and specialised in aviation subjects.

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He painted aeroplanes at Heathrow and won commissions from airline companies. During this time he met Avril Gaywood, a secretary for Capital Airlines, and the couple married in 1957.

Never looked back

In 1960 the RAF flew him to Aden, not to paint aircraft but to capture the life of the country on canvas. He painted a rhinoceros chasing an aeroplane on a runway, and never looked back. He went on to paint elephants, tigers, lions, giraffes, cheetahs and zebras.

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On that visit he became a conservationist, after finding a herd of 255 dead zebra around a waterhole which had been poisoned by poachers.

His picture of his trademark African elephant bull, facing the viewer head-on with ears spread wide, Wise Old Elephant, was reproduced as a print by Boots the Chemist in 1962, and became a bestseller. That year, he held his first solo exhibition in London, and from there his paintings brought him world renown and wealth.

In 1955, young artist David Shepherd set up his easel inside this BR roundhouse at York – now the Great Hall of the National Railway Museum. DAVID SHEPHERD COLLECTION

He may not always have found favour with critics, but the public at large loved his paintings, which were often mistaken for photographs because of the clarity and accuracy of his brushstrokes.

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Portraits of the powerful and famous were also painted, including that of Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in 1967, and of the Queen Mother two years later.

David’s conservation success was the subject of a 1970 BBC documentary The Man Who Loves Giants, also the title of his autobiography which was published six years later.

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