Charles Shepherd, a struggling, Brisbane born artist, was the subject of great excitement when a portrait he exhibited at the 1926 Dominion Artists’ Exhibition in London was called ‘a work of genius’. The Exhibition arose from the Dominion Artists’ Club, established in 1924 by Dr. G.A Pfister (formerly of Perth). Its first President had been none other than Dame Nellie Melba.
A HAND UP
In August 1925, Dr Pfister had come upon a destitute Shepherd selling his work in Oxford Street;
Dr Pfister, who describes Mr Sheppard as being a wonderful portrait painter, says that he is highly educated and has a tremendous personality and it is believed he will climb to the top in the artistic world. Dr Pfister has equipped the artist with clothes, easel and paints to enable him to start afresh. (Farmer & Settler, Aug. 28 1925).
Unfortunately, by the time the exhibition opened in March 1926, nobody knew where Charles Shepherd was. Despite the earlier intervention by Dr. Pfister he had slipped through the cracks and was barely surviving.
He had been missing for a couple of weeks and at last report had been living in the slums of King’s Cross. The Daily Chronicle reported that art students were combing the city in search of him, ‘Efforts to trace him have been unavailing. Money has been subscribed for the purpose of developing his genius when found.’ (Daily Chronicle March 4 1926) é
Dr Pfister had organized the Dominion art show and encouraged his protégé to contribute.
THE HOPES AND ASPIRATIONS OF CHARLES SHEPHERD
Shepherd had arrived in London thanks to his father, a Brisbane art dealer, who had great faith in his son’s talent. Charles had previously been employed in farming and as a seaman, but his father had the funds to help him reach his creative potential. In 1922, the Shepherds went on a grand tour of Europe to allow Charles to see and be inspired by the works of the masters. When Sam Shepherd returned home, his son remained in London, hoping to find success.
Unfortunately, fame and fortune did not come to the aspiring artist.
LONDON – March 4 – Charles Shepherd, the Queensland artist, whose work has been hailed as that of a genius, has been found, tired and penniless, in a tiny bare room at Euston. He said he was showing canvases in all weather. His earnings averaged shillings, and sometimes nothing at all. He did not live, he merely existed. But he did not despair. Although it was a soul destroying life, killing his inspiration, he was going on the pavement again that day.
Sometimes there were flickers of hope. A generous by-passer might pay him five shillings for a dashed off canvas, allowing him to continue with his real work.
On one occasion he had seen a poster advertising Sybil Thorndyke in her famous role as Joan of Arc. He longed to paint her portrait, but had completely run out of materials. Instead, he used a pair of scissors to scratch her likeness onto a thin piece of wood. He sent it to her and she responded with a letter of thanks, plus tickets to a performance. She told him the portrait would be hung in the vestibule of the theatre.
Sam Shepherd had received a letter from his son in January 1926, and sensed that things had become very difficult. Although there was no request for financial assistance, he responded by suggesting it might be time for Charles to return home, and enclosed funds for a ticket. He had been hoping his son was aboard the Oronsay, enroute to Brisbane when reports he was missing appeared. Now extremely worried, he cabled the Queensland Agent-General, Mr John Huxham, for assistance.
Mr Huxham went out of his way to help. He requested help from Scotland Yard in searching for the missing painter. When he was located he said he would commission Charles to complete several portraits. One was to be of his beloved wife Helen, who had recently died. Helen Huxham had been a passionate advocate for world peace and women’s rights. It was touching that the grieving widower was willing to trust an unconventional artist with something so personal.
Mr Huxham’s warmth and generosity was remarked on at the time in Australia.
The Brisbane artist, who is reported to have had ‘a rough spin’, in London, seems to represent a lamb rather than a shepherd. But it is good to know that he has come under the fatherly eye of Agent-General John Huxham, of Queensland. A sympathetic soul, full of the milk of human kindness – that is, ‘Uncle John’ Huxham – and he will do all the shepherding necessary in this case. Already he has started the young man on the high road by commissioning him to paint a posthumous portrait of Mrs Huxham. It was, by the way, a distinct loss to Australia when Mrs Huxham died, for she too, was essentially warm-hearted and one of the foremost woman orators known to this country. (Daily Telegraph, Mar. 8 1926).
ROYAL INTEREST IN THE ARTIST
King George and Queen Mary visited the Exhibition and deliberately sought out painting No. 92, the work by Charles that had created such interest. The treatment of skin tones in his portrait of actor J. Barry was spoken of as being a new direction in painting.
The King was most interested in the work of Charles Shepherd, an Australian pavement artist who, poverty stricken, was figuratively rescued from the gutter by Australian friends. The King asked if Shepherd’s work had been done before he had been privately helped, and was told that it was done after. He was also informed that the striking white effects on the portrait were achieved by using white, because it was the only colour the artist had at the time. (Northern Star, March 20 1926,)
Apparently King George had examined the oil painting closely, trying to decide whether the striking white effects were achieved by the artist using white paint or simply through leaving areas of the canvas blank.
The subject of the painting was actually John Barry Thompson, the actor son of a Melbourne Doctor. Like Shepherd, he had been trying to make his mark in London. An interesting piece about the two men appeared in the publication Table Talk on April 22. They had probably met at the Dominion Artists’ Club.
Mrs Barry Thompson’s large circle of friends are very interested in the series of pictures she received by the last overseas mail depicting the painting of her son, John Barry, as he is known in the theatrical world. In the illustrations he is also shown with the now famous Australian painter, Charles Sheppard (sic), viewing the painting of himself, which brought fame to Mr Sheppard, who was found starving in a London suburb. It was exhibited on the walls at the exhibition held by Dominion artists at Spring Gardens Gallery.
DREAMS DIE HARD FOR CHARLES SHEPHERD
The artist spoke about the portrait himself, in an interview with a journalist published in Brisbane’s Daily Mail on March 6. A photograph accompanying the piece showed how radically his appearance had changed.
LONDON, Friday. – A lanky figure, with ascetic and well cut features, impressively dark, dreamy eyes, and a mop of long hair, rose from the only chair in the room when a representative of the Australian Cable Service entered a top floor, back bedroom overlooking drab backyards near Euston station.
Mr Shepherd was totally indifferent to the fact that he had been reported missing. He said; ‘I was unaware of the hue and cry until I saw the evening papers reproducing my Barry portrait. I have been exhibiting canvases on the pavement in Oxford Street, and was not identified because I had grown a beard. My output of paintings was small, because I had run out of paints. I was amused to see my white effects had aroused comment. This was chiefly determined by my stock of paint. At present I am concentrating on blue effects, because I have run out of white. I hope it is true that after many ups and downs, I have started on the road to fortune.’
Charles’ honesty about the Barry portrait probably did him a disservice. If he had represented the use of the white paint as an intentional new direction he may have received even more acclaim.
Meanwhile his father, through John Huxham, had provided another ticket home, but Charles said he would be remaining in London and was confident he would soon be ‘recognized’. Dr Pfister (chairman of the Dominion Artists’ Club) was hopeful of securing a weekly living allowance for him, from the Artists’ Benevolence Fund. Charles had by then accumulated enough works to hold his own small exhibition in the West End. Whether he actually did so is not recorded.
The publicity evoked a positive response back in Queensland;
A feature of the first meeting of the year of the Authors’ and Artists’ Association, which took place in the Brisbane Women’s Club rooms last evening, was supplied by an exhibition of paintings, the work of Mr Charles Shepherd, a Brisbane artist, whose name came into prominence in London recently. (The Telegraph, Mar. 1926)
It must have been a wonderful occasion for the Shepherd family.
After researching this piece I have some unanswered questions. Firstly, what happened to the celebrated portrait of Mr Barry? Secondly, why is there no record of the Shepherd family in Australia after 1926? Perhaps they joined Charles in the UK.
I would love to know if anyone owns a painting by Charles Shepherd, or can provide information about what became of him. It seems such a shame that he is lost again.
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