Have you ever had that moment when you decide to watch that indie film that not even the indie festivals screened? Have you ever picked up a completely random book at the library that you had never heard of before, but it pulled at you for no obvious reason so you decided to give it a go? Has that act ever given you that amazing feeling of discovery afterwards? Art and beauty are all around us but because we are usually attracted to –and blinded by- the limelight, we fail to find it. Still, sometimes we stumbled upon something special and oh, the glory. To find that piece of wonder and be awed, giddy with the high only a treasure hunter who just unearthed a chest full of jewels can feel. Well those moments are special and ought to be shared, which is why I am yapping here today in an attempt to talk to you about a gem I unearthed (don’t worry, I wasn’t the first one). His name is William James Affleck Shepherd, and his story is quite something.
In order to do justice to this artist some other people will be referenced. I will attempt not to stray too far away from the subject at hand and I will keep the introductions short. William James Affleck Shepherd (usually recognized by his acronymic signature JAS) was born in November 1867 in London. Notice the date and location. Victorian London was the place to be for any artist. All the things and all the people from all the places of this tiny planet were at your disposal to observe and examine. It was no great surprise that Shepherd, who was a pupil of Alfred Bryan at the time, spent a lot of his time at the London Zoo, studying, observing and making sketches of the animals there. The study of animal behavior and physiology is a long-standing tradition for artists. In fact, some cartoonists and illustrators who preceded Shepherd used to do the same thing; Griset is a bright example of that. It is also obvious that Shepherd was influenced by Griset’s work (and that of Grandville), but his work was more stylized and not quite so grotesque, and his strong outlines had a more modern flare.
Shepherd had the great fortune of being an active artist during an important period of the British newspaper and cartoon world. A few years before his time cartoonists had to limit themselves to the art of engravings (and artists like Ernest Griset had to sell their work on their own at shops in Leicester Square). But at the beginning of the 20th century the glorious evolution of printing methods released the artists from their bindings and they went –in simple words- crazy. In the early 1900s the art of cartoons in the British papers covers ink work, pencil art, watercolors, mixed mediums and diehard engravers, they all make their appearance and at the same time! In this loony and happily artistic world, J.A. Shepherd thought he would add his own tribute. Drawing for Punch and Strand Magazine for over 40 years (as well as for Black & White, Boys Own Paper, Good Words, Illustrated London News, Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, Sketch, Tatler etc) he amused the readers with his anthropomorphic animals in their silly adventures.
Here is the point where Shepherd’s story gains a unique turn. He was a skillful craftsman, but no more or less than most of his counterparts. Furthermore, one would think that since many of the creators back then were prolific, and that quite a lot of them made an impact on the craft, J.A. Shepherd faded –naturally- into the background. While that is true, it is not necessarily right and it turns out, not being a well-known or renounced artist doesn’t mean one’s work was not good enough, or didn’t make much of a difference.
There is something extraordinary in J.A. Shepherds work. He was remarkably good at making anthropomorphic animals. Amazingly, never-seen-before good. He combined the human element with the stereotypical characteristics of each animal seamlessly, and he had such a good grasp of the animal physiology that it all blended to perfectly illustrated characters. They were infused with life and while he was certainly not the first artist to blend humans and animals, he was among the first who did it so well. His work can easily stand up to that of the Disney artists.
The comparison is not accidental. Disney had started making his movies at a time when Shepherd had reached a level of recognition and proficiency. During the 1920s, he had already been contributing to magazines for a couple of decades and had even printed books with collections of his work. It was also during that time when animation started flourishing. Small studios had popped up in various corners of America and Europe. Unfortunately, even though both sides of the pond produced many films, the European ones were not much appreciated by the Europeans. In any case, two such animation production companies were Kine Komedy Kartoons and Hepworth Picture Plays in Walton-on-Thames (Cecil Hepworth’s studio). That is where another forgotten pioneer of the time, a man named Ernest John Anson Dyer, and it was he who had the marvelous idea of making a film out of Shepherd’s work. In 1919 he chose Zig Zag Fables (Shepherd’s first published work) for his Phillips Philm Phables series (also known as the Uncle Remus series). In his article about Anson Dyer, film historian Geoff Brown notes: “For all the current lack of critical attention, Anson Dyer was a major figure in British animation for over 30 years, from the first world war to the aftermath of the second … [He] was promoted for a time as Britain’s equivalent of Walt Disney, with a prolific and popular output of children’s cartoons” (Brown, BFI Screenonline).
Unfortunately, I was not able to locate any part of the Phillips Philm Phables series, but I did find other examples of Dyer’s work, which is utterly charming. He used cut out paper for his films, and his character design (from what I saw in pictures) shows an amazing eye for characters, especially since it’s from a time when animation was still a new thing. While I don’t have any proof of this, considering the timing and the ever present exchange of elements and ideas in art, I do believe that Walt Disney was greatly influenced by these great artistic figures. There are some examples, such as the extreme similarities between characters Shepherd drew for his Zig Zag Fables (back in 1897) and Pinocchio (1940), not to mention that his general sense of aesthetics was very similar (and preceding) to that of the early Disney animated films. In addition, there is an article written by Andreas Deja, a modern Disney animator, who mentions that he first came across J.A. Shepherd during the production of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” during the 1980s. Proof that Shepherd has been an influence in the world of cartoons and illustration, even if he hasn’t taken any credit for it.
Regardless of all that, Shepherd has left us with a plethora of published work. Some of it, such as “Zig-Zag Fables”, “The Frog Who Would A-Wooing Go”, “The Donkey Book” “Animal Caricature,” etc., he wrote and illustrated. He also did illustrations for publishers like the Bodley Head, where he illustrated a series of books on birds and the natural history of England, as well as for various independent authors. Personally, I found that in the book “Zig-Zags at the Zoo” he and Arthur Morrison (the author) analyzed the form of each animal (by species, no less) and gave each one of them a personality based in both their appearance and their nature. We see these characters come to life through Shepherd’s sketches of them that are so perfectly drawn and humorously described in his notes, that this book can easily be considered an excellent guide not just for making anthropomorphic creatures, but for how we can find inspiration and examples of cartoon characters by simply observing the people and animals surrounding us. If I knew a publisher somewhere out there I would be begging to get this book reprinted, it is really worth it.
P.S We don’t have Shepherds work on display at the Cartoon Museum, but we do have a book he wrote and illustrated (Zig-Zag Fables), as well as a great deal of the work he contributed to Punch and several other magazines. If you are a researcher and are interested in learning more about him, you can drop by the museum and ask us nicely to let you have a look.
Brown, Geoff. Dyer, Anson (1876-1962). BFI Screenonline.
Bryant, Mark. 2000. Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Cartoonists and Caricaturists. London: Ashgate Publishing.
Crafton, Donald. 1982. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. London: University of Chicago Press.
Ludwig, Robyn. 2012. “Anson Dyer: Britain’s Forgotten Animation Pioneer.” Silent London. Last accessed 10/10/2017.
Punch Annuals. 1900-1920.