David Shepherd was the first to admit he had no natural talent. When he submitted his first oil painting, Seagulls, to the Slade School of Art in London, his application was promptly rejected. In its reply, the school described the work as a depiction “of birds of dubious ancestry, flying in anatomically impossible positions over a lavatorial green sea”.
“I couldn’t have put it better myself!” Shepherd later acknowledged.
That early setback, contrasted with his later popularity as a prolific painter of nature and industry, gave him the conviction that any person with enough determination could be taught to paint. Though shunned by critics, his wildlife art became immensely popular, and gave him a platform from which to advocate for wildlife preservation in Africa and beyond.
Born in 1931 in north London, David Shepherd was a rather nervous boy who led, in his own words, “the usual sheltered middle-class life”. The Second World War, which he found to be “madly exciting”, gave him licence for some adventure, however, as he and his brother would learn to recognise the planes flying overhead, and collected unexploded shells and other military relics in the aftermath of bombings.
His father worked in advertising before the war, and in hotel management after it. The family as a whole was not especially artistic, and the young Shepherd had no particular interest in painting either, although he did join the school’s art club in order to avoid being roughed up at rugby. Inspired by the books he read as a child, which told the stories of pioneers who “opened up Africa”, he dreamed of becoming a game warden.
His father did not object, and even paid for his travel to Kenya. On arrival, in 1949, Shepherd soon realised he was “a very square peg in a very round hole a long way from home”. The warden of the Nairobi National Park rejected his application as a matter of course – after all, he had neither much knowledge, nor experience, of Kenyan wildlife – and within a few months a dejected Shepherd was headed back to England. There he deliberated between what he thought were his two only options: earn a living as a bus driver, or starve as an artist.
He gave the second option a try by applying to the Slade – and the strongly worded rejection suggested that buses might in fact be his sole recourse. But a chance encounter with the marine painter Robin Goodwin at a party gave him the opportunity to receive the training he…