Richard David Shepherd was born on April 25, 1931, in Hendon, a London suburb. His father worked in the hospitality business, and his mother was a farmer and horse breeder. His early career aspirations had nothing to do with art.
“I had one idea only when I was growing up in the 1930s: to go to Africa and be a game warden,” he said in a 2015 television interview. “I had never even been across the channel, so I had no qualifications whatsoever. So I hop into an airplane and fly out to Kenya in 1949 and knock on the door of the head game warden in Nairobi and say, ‘Can I be a game warden?’ And he said, ‘No, bugger off.’ And I came back to England with my world in ruins.”
He was fond of showing his first painting — birds over a turbulent sea — and telling the story of how it got him turned away from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Then, at a cocktail party, he met Robin Goodwin, a professional painter, who invited Mr. Shepherd to bring his work to his studio for an evaluation.
“I wish I had had a tape recorder in my pocket, because he said something like, ‘Oh, my God, anybody who paints as badly as that, I’ve just got to teach him,’ ” Mr. Shepherd recalled in the 2015 interview. “He took me on as a challenge.”
One of his earliest professional assignments, in 1953, was to paint pictures of airplanes in London as they sat on the airport runway.
“I was learning the hard way, in all weathers, and the noise, and the dirt, and the perpetual wind that shook the canvas,” he said in “The Man Who Loves Giants.” “And they had a habit of towing the airplanes away when you were halfway through painting their portraits.”
He did well enough, however, that next came jobs for the Royal Air Force recreating World War II scenes, for which he flew in vintage planes and rode in tanks over battle sites. In 1960 the Air Force flew him to Africa to paint more airplane portraits, but soon he was painting elephants’ portraits instead.
He also received his first glimpses of poaching and other horrors visited upon wildlife, and he was not able to stay detached.
“Emotion is involved in a huge way, with a capital E, when you’ve seen an elephant, as I have, walking along on the road having blown his…