David Shepherd was a naturalistic painter in oils of a wide range of subjects, and most notably of African wildlife and steam railways, both of which were dear to his heart. Becoming one of the world’s best known and most outspoken environmentalists, he raised millions for conservation through sales of his wildlife paintings. He became so popular with the public that, during the 1960s, prints of his images of elephants outsold reproductions of works by Canaletto. David Shepherd was born in Hendon, North London, on 25 April 1931, the second of three children of Raymond Shepherd, who worked in advertising, and his wife, Margaret (née Williamson). At the age of eight, while growing up with his family in Totteridge, he showed a glimpse of his later artistic success by winning a children’s painting competition in the magazine, Nursery World. Later, he attended Stowe School, in Buckinghamshire, but failed to shine academically.
Throughout his childhood, his only ambition had been to become a game warden; so, on leaving school, in 1949, his father paid for him to travel to Kenya to follow his dream. However, when he arrived at Nairobi National Park, he was politely told by the warden that he was unqualified. After a brief period in which he worked as a hotel receptionist on the Kenyan coast, he returned home.
Shepherd turned almost desperately to art, and applied for a place at the Slade School of Art, only to be told that he had no talent. However, he met Robin Goodwin, a painter of portraits and marine subjects, at a party, and was taken on as his assistant at his Chelsea studio. He stayed with him for three years, from 1950 to 1953, and, painting every day from dawn to dusk, learned much from him. He soon developed a speciality in aeronautical subjects, becoming a founder member of the Society of Aviation Artists in 1953, and winning commissions from airline companies that enabled him to travel the world. The results were showcased at his first solo exhibition, held at the Parsons Gallery, in London, in 1955.
During this time, Shepherd met Avril Gaywood, a secretary for Capital Airlines, and his parents encouraged them to get engaged by giving him a Victorian cottage, with more than an acre of land, next to their own house in Frensham, Surrey. He and Avril married in 1957, and would have four daughters, including Mandy, who would also become a wildlife and military artist.
In 1960, the Royal Air Force invited Shepherd to paint for the services in Aden, and then to depict life in Kenya. This proved to be a turning point in his career, as he produced his first wildlife painting, a rhinoceros chasing a Twin Pioneer down a runway. Soon after, he became a conservationist, after finding a herd of dead zebra at a Tanzanian waterhole, which had been poisoned by poachers.
Though Shepherd exhibited only once at the Royal Academy, in 1956, his second solo show – held at the Tryon Gallery, London, in 1962 – proved a great success. At the same time, his work gained in popularity through its reproduction as prints, an early example being Wise Old Elephant, which was published by Boots the Chemist in 1962, and sold a quarter of a million copies. Further solo shows – in London (1965 and subsequently), Johannesburg (1966 and 1969) and New York (1967) – confirmed his international reputation. Soon Shepherd was producing the portraits of statesmen and stateswomen, notably Kenneth Kaunda, President of Zambia (1967), Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1969) and Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi (1970). As a result of his success, he was able to buy an Elizabethan farmhouse set in 16 acres at Hascombe, in Surrey.
Shepherd was interested in conserving trains as well as wildlife. In 1967, he bought two mainline steam locomotives – The Green Knight and Black Prince – from British Railways, and sold the former to North Yorkshire Moors Railway to finance the restoration of the latter, which was eventually sold to North Norfolk Railway in 2015. In the early 1970s, he received two further locomotives from President Kaunda in gratitude for his raising the funds, through the auction of five wildlife paintings, to purchase a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter that would be used to combat game poaching in Zambia. The return of one of these locomotives to Britain was the subject of the 1974 BBC documentary, Last Train to Mulobezi, one of several television programmes made about the artist. During the same period, he helped found the preserved steam railway, East Somerset Railway.
Shepherd had a major fund-raising success in 1973, when his painting, Tiger Fire, raised £127,000 for Indira Gandhi’s Operation Tiger. His exceptional talent for raising awareness through his art was recognised in the same year, when Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands conferred on him the Most Excellent Order of the Golden Ark for services to nature conservation. At the end of the decade, in 1980, he was awarded an OBE. In 1984, he founded the David Shepherd Conservation Foundation (now known as the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation) both to channel his own conservation efforts and to fund vital enforcement and community projects. His achievements were further acknowledged during the late 1980s and 90s: he was made a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts (1986) and the Royal Geographical Society (1989), and an Officer of the Order of St John (1996), and received the Order of Distinguished Service from President Kaunda (1988).
In 2000, David and Avril Shepherd moved to Hammerwood, in West Sussex, and settled into another Elizabethan farmhouse. As he entered his seventies, David continued to work as hard as ever in the fields of art and animal conservation, and his achievements were acknowledged by his being made a Freeman of the City of London (2004) and awarded a CBE (2008).
In 2011, during the year of his eightieth birthday, Shepherd launched a new campaign to save the tiger in the wild. A year later, he was awarded both the Conservation Award in the Wetnose Animal Aid Awards and the True Englishman Award at the St George’s Day Club annual gathering. He also took up an invitation to open Zambia’s first elephant orphanage nursery at a ceremony officiated by Dr Guy Scott, Vice-President of Zambia. In 2014, he held his last solo show, at the Rountree Tryon Galleries, In 2016, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award, as one of the Mirror’s Animal Hero Awards.
Shepherd produced a number of books that promoted interest in both his art and its subjects, beginning with An Artist in Africa (1969). Those that followed included his autobiography, The Man Who Loves Giants (1975), Paintings of Africa and India (1978), A Brush with Steam: David Shepherd’s Railway Story (1983), David Shepherd: The Man and his Paintings (1985), An Artist in Conservation (1992), David Shepherd: My Painting Life (1995), the autobiography, Only One World (1995), and Painting with David Shepherd (with Brenda Howley, 2004)
David Shepherd died on 19 September 2017.
Further reading: Theo Cowdell, ‘Shepherd, (Richard) David (b London, April 25, 1931)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T078184; Olivier Holmey, ‘David Shepherd: Artist and conservationist sneered at by critics but whose work sold in droves’ [Obituary], Independent, 25 September 2017; Michael McNay, ‘David Shepherd’ [Obituary], Guardian, 21 September 2017