Rupert Norman Shephard (1909-1992) was one of the last of the group of gifted artist-teachers to emerge from the Slade in the 1920s; his contemporaries included William Coldstream, Rodrigo Moynihan, Claude Rodgers, Victor Pasmore and Carel Weight.
He was born in London to a Quaker mother from a family of optical instrument makers and Indian missionaries, and an engineer father who, as a keen amateur artist, encouraged his three children to draw and paint from an early age.
Shephard was educated at Repton College, and then at the illustrious Slade School of Fine Art run by the legendary Professor Henry Tonks. Tonk’s teaching bred a formidable tenacity in his students, and a diversity of approach which was apparent throughout Shephard’s career. The meticulous draftmanship insisted on by Tonks stood his pupils in good stead, and two of Shephard’s contemporaries, Coldstream and Rodgers, with whom he shared more than one group-show, founded the Euston Road School of Drawing and Painting in 1937. As Marian Barbour commented, “While Shephard’s early work was bleakly linear, in the late 1930s and 1940s this gave way to the more painterly style, cool and tonal in the Euston Road tradition that derived from Sickert.” (Obituary, The Guardian, 21 March 1992)
It was at the Slade that Shephard first met the artist and writer, Nicolette Macnamara, the eldest daughter of the Irish poet, Francis Macnamara, who later became his second wife. In the 1920s Shephard was part of a circle of Slade students who holidayed at Blashford in the New Forest, where Nicolette’s family lived, and which was close to Augustus John’s ménage at Fryern, of which Nicolette and her sisters were a part. Nicolette’s sister, Caitlin, who Shephard painted at Blashford and later in Ireland, was to marry Dylan Thomas.
On leaving the Slade, Shephard taught art at a secondary school in West Ham, whilst also sketching in London pubs and music halls. He became involved in the avant-garde Group Theatre which put on plays by W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, painting sets and appearing himself in minor roles.
During the Second World War, he was employed as a skilled jig-and-tool draughtsman for the manufacture of tools for munitions industries. This work exempted him from military service.
He was later appointed an Official War Artist covering the home front. The Imperial Museum owns sixteen of Shephard’s work from this period, including interior views of factories manufacturing aircraft components and penicillin, landing craft on the way to their port of departure, and motor traffic coping with the Blitz.
In 1940, Shephard, on a painting holiday in Wales with his wife, Lorna Wilmot, stayed at a hotel in Laugharne, where Caitlin and Dylan Thomas lived. It was here that he painted his notable portrait of Dylan Thomas, “As he sat smoking and playing with words”, (Nicolette Devas, Two Flamboyant Fathers, 1978), which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
The 1940s were some of Shephard’s most prolific and successful years, in spite of the war. He exhibited widely in West End galleries, undertook portrait commissions, including several for a large venture launched by ICI: Portraits of an Industry; lectured at St Martin’s and the Central School of Art, and painted local London scenes for Recording Britain. These were the origins of his fascination with documenting London, which were to be developed further in his 1960’s linocuts.
In 1948 Shephard was appointed Professor and Director of the Michaelis School of Art in the University of Cape Town. His decision to take up the job was in part influenced by his wife, Lorna, having been born in South Africa. Africa had a profound affect on Shephard’s art. The intense African light and expansive landscapes so different from his earlier English and European experience, influenced his painting in terms of subject matter, colour and composition. His work was exhibited in South African galleries regularly during the 1950’s as well as the Venice Biennale.
Trained not only as a portrait and landscape painter, but also in etching and lithography, it was during this period that he began working on the complexities of 4-colour linocuts, crafting series such as ‘Parties’, and ‘Passing Scene: Eighteen Images of Southern Africa’ (later published by the Stourton Press, UK 1966). Shephard was a distinguished Head of Department and a greatly admired teacher, and through the apartheid 1950’s he fostered generations of young multi-racial artists and sculptors, not only from South Africa but also from the, as then, neighbouring countries of Northern and Southern Rhodesia.
He returned to London in 1963 and to full-time painting. Following the death of Lorna, in 1965 he married Nicolette Macnamara Devas, widow of his Slade contemporary, Anthony Devas. They set up house off the Kings Road at the Worlds-End, London. There, he worked “as an outstanding exponent of that English school of painting -sharply and warmly observed, scrupulously true to visual truth, understated but intimate – which was disregarded for so long, but which is again winning respect as a true national movement”. (Obituary, The Times, March 21 1992) His work was diverse including portrait commissions, interior and urban scenes, landscapes, decoration of pottery, and he returned to linocuts – first his “London Series” in the 1960s, followed by his “Bird Series” in the 1970s and 1980s, which drew as much on London garden scenes as from those of French Provence.
In 1972 he was elected a member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters. He was represented by Sally Hunter Fine Art in Belgravia, and held regular one-man shows during the following twenty years.
Biography courtesy of the Shephard Estate ©
Public Collections in the UK holding Shephard include:
National Portrait Gallery; Arts Council of Great Britain; British Museum Print room; Imperial War Museum; Geffrye Museum; National Museum of Wales; Coventry Museum