David Shepherd's paintings of African elephants and endangered species are instantly recognisable. And anyone who dreams of Africa will want one on their wall.
David Shepherd leaves a trail. If, on your next African safari, you stumble across a succession of anthills topped with sunglasses, tread carefully: you are on the trail of the Greater Famous Wildlife Artist, genus David Shepherd. “I love being out in the bush photographing and observing animals and when I get excited I take my sunglasses off and put them down on the nearest anthill,” Shepherd confesses. “Then, of course, I forget them, so I have to have lots of pairs.”
It is rare for an artist to become iconic in his own lifetime but David Shepherd’s paintings of African elephants and other endangered species are instantly recognisable. In December 2014 he exhibited at the Rountree Tryon Galleries. “It was 99% new paintings. I paint every morning; it is a discipline, though I don’t go on painting much after lunch. I am doing a rhino at the moment but I must admit I do get a bit tired.” He is 83.
AN UNTRAINABLE ARTIST
Shepherd is endearingly modest about his success. “I had no painting talent whatever at the beginning and might easily have ended up driving a bus. My dad gave me the chance to try to be an artist and I entered the Slade School of Fine Art – they chucked me out. But, really, I think I am the luckiest man on God’s earth because it all came good in the end. I happened to be at a cocktail party in Winchester where I met a wonderful artist, Robin Goodwin, who said he would have a look at my work. I showed him some ghastly bird painting and he said, ‘You are untrainable!’ However, he did agree to take me on. I had to be at the studio every morning by eight and paint. It is a job – you have to work.”
HIGH FLYER AT HEATHROW
David Shepherd obviously turned out to be trainable after all, because after three years he went out on his own as artist in residence at the then relatively new Heathrow Airport. “It was a magical place in those days,” remembers Shepherd. “I was allowed to go wherever I wanted to paint and I loved the airplanes.” His images of Fifties aircraft and wartime airplanes captured the zeitgeist of the new jet-set era and attracted the attention of the RAF. “They invited me out to Aden and then to Kenya in 1960 to do a painting to go in the officers’ mess. It hadn’t really occurred to me to do a wildlife painting but I ended up painting a rhino chasing a plane along the airstrip. It’s now in the RAF Club in Piccadilly. That painting did everything for me. People wanted my pictures then.”
Shepherd’s love of African big game had been with him for years. “As a boy, I had read a lot of books about Africa so my first choice of career was naturally to be a game warden, which I assumed was just a matter of turning up. So off I went to a game lodge in Kenya and, of course, they sent me packing. But I have never met anybody who has been to Africa just once.”
Sure enough, David Shepherd and his wife, Avril, soon found themselves in the Serengeti. Shepherd won’t forget their experience there. “We saw an elephant who had trod on a land mine and blown his foot off and you have to do something. The things you see. When you see an elephant die of old age it is natural but to see them being slaughtered for these awful products is dreadful. So I am very lucky to be able to paint a picture that will raise a reasonable amount of money that goes into the foundation. I can repay my debt of gratitude.”
DAVID SHEPHERD WILDLIFE FOUNDATION
He started the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation in 1984 and the charity is now involved in a range of wildlife protection and conservation projects, not just in Africa but in India and around the world. Even after 30 years, Shepherd is as passionate as ever about its work. “I am so emotional about what is happening,” he says. “I have tears of rage and anger. I have been trying to save the tiger and you think, ‘Why do I bother?’ and then when you actually see a tiger, you believe in creation but they are the most astonishingly endangered animals. For me now, conservation is the motivation for painting and for life.”