David Shepherd CBE FRSA 1931 – 2017 British wildlife artist and conservationist
As a small boy, David had only one ambition, to be a game warden. So after leaving school in 1949, he went to Kenya to follow his dream, only to be politely told that he was not wanted! Returning home with his dream in tatters, he faced two choices: ‘to drive buses or starve as an artist’.
Rejected by the Slade School of Fine Art as having ‘no talent whatsoever’, it was by good fortune that he met Robin Goodwin, a professional artist, who took him under his wing, teaching him for three years, and to whom he owed his success.
David started his career as an aviation artist and owed a great deal to the Services who commissioned paintings that took him all over the world. The RAF flew him from Mukulla in Aden to Kenya in 1960, which proved a turning point in his career when they commissioned his very first wildlife painting – a rhino on a runway – he never looked back.
It was at this time that he became a conservationist overnight when he came across 255 dead zebra at a poisoned waterhole in Tanzania. Throughout his career David tried to do all he could to repay the enormous debt he felt he owed to the elephants, tigers and other animals that gave him so much success as an artist. ‘Tiger Fire’ was one of his first major fund-raising successes, raising £127,000 (equivalent to £1.4 million in today’s money) for Indira Gandhi’s Operation Tiger in 1973.
In 1984 he established the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) to channel his own conservation efforts and to fund vital enforcement and community projects that continue to make a real difference to wildlife survival. To date, through his tireless efforts, and thanks to the generosity of the Foundation’s dedicated supporters, including artists from around the world, over £8 million has been given away directly in grants to keep key projects in Africa and Asia alive and operational.
In 2011, during his 80th birthday year, David launched a new campaign to save the tiger in the wild. The social media based ‘TigerTime’ has celebrity support from Sir Paul McCartney, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, among many.
As well as his wildlife and landscape paintings, David was perhaps lesser known for his portraits, which include Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, HE Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi and perhaps the most significant, his vast portrayal of ‘Christ on the Battlefield’ which hangs behind the alter in Base Chapel at MOD Lyneham.
His life as an artist and conservationist featured in several TV programmes including the BBC’s ‘Man Who Loves Giants’ (1972) and ‘Last Train to Mulobezi’ (1974), Harleck’s ‘Elephants and Engines’ (1974), ‘In Search of Wildlife’ series for Thames (1988), ‘Naturewatch’ for Central TV (1990), and ‘This is Your Life’ (1990). His books include ‘An Artist in Africa’ (1967), ‘The Man Who Loves Giants’ (1975), ‘A Brush with Steam’ (1983), ‘David Shepherd, The Man and His Paintings’ (1985), ‘David Shepherd, An Artist in Conservation’ (1992), ‘David Shepherd, My Painting Life’ and ‘Only One World’ (1995) and ‘Painting with David Shepherd’ (2004).
David’s many awards included an Honorary Degree in Fine Arts by the Pratt Institute in New York (1971), the Order of the Golden Ark by HRH The Prince of The Netherlands (1973), Member of Honour of WWF and OBE (1979), FRSA (1986), Order of Distinguished Service, Zambia (1988), and June 2008 the CBE for services to conservation.
In 2012 David was awarded the Conservation Award in the Wetnose Animal Aid Awards, followed by the True Englishman Award at the St George’s Day Club annual gathering in April that year. He was also invited to open Zambia’s first elephant orphanage nursery at a ceremony officiated by Dr Guy Scott, Vice-President of Zambia. It took him back to Zambia, which he considered to be his second home, and where he was able to spend precious time with his beloved elephants.
Just last year David was awarded the Animal Hero Lifetime Achievement Award, receiving two standing ovations as he collected his award at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London. The applause left him speechless, which he acknowledged to be a rare thing.
David lived with his wife Avril in West Sussex, and continued to paint every day until he became ill. His extraordinary passion for conservation is continued by his four daughters, nine grandchildren, and great grand-daughter.