He was nine years old when he experienced air raid shelters during the London Blitz in 1940 and during the next year when 34 high explosive bombs were dropped on Hendon. As a small boy in the Summer of 1940 he was thrilled witness to the aerial dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe pilots over the City in the Battle of Britain and recalled : "I used to watch the air raids and the ‘Battle of Britain’ on the way to school. It was so exciting – we didn’t realise people were killing each other." By the time the War had ended, he was in his early teens and his parents had coughed up the fees and packed him off to the boarding school for boys, Stowe School in Buckinghamshire.
The school was set in the image of J. F. Roxburgh, its founding Headmaster, whose aim had been to produce a modern public school concentrating on the individual, without the unpleasantness of fagging or arcane names then common in other schools. Instead, he sought to instil a new ethos enthused with the beauty of Stowe’s unique environment where the best of traditional education would be tempered by liberal learning and every pupil would “know beauty when he sees it all his life.” Roxburgh had started as Head when the school was opened in 1923 and retired in the year David left when he was 18 in 1949.
"Up to that point, my only interest in art had been as an escape from the rugger field. The game was compulsory at school and I was terrified of it. I couldn't see any fun in being buried under heaps of bodies in the mud and having my face kicked in. l fled into the Art Department where it was more comfortable and painted the most unspeakably awful painting of birds." The key point was that he was allowed to "escape" from sport. He also visited the school library where he found and borrowed as many books as possible on big game wildlife.
"was to be a game warden, so when I’d finished my education at Stowe, I went out to Kenya believing I was God’s gift to the National Parks. I knocked on the door of the Head Game Warden in Nairobi and said, "I’m here, can I be a game warden?" I was told I wasn’t wanted. That was the end of my career in three seconds flat." In fact, David lacked the required academic qualifications, such as zoology, as well as knowledge of the bush and Kenyan citizenship. The Parks Superintendent consoled him by taking him in safari in which he saw the National Park and Amboseli Reserve for the first time.
"life was in ruins,” he withdrew to Malindi on the Kenyan coast, where, deflated and homesick, David took a job as a receptionist in a hotel on the Kenya coast with a salary of £1 a week where he "painted some more bird paintings on plasterboard and I sold seven of them for £l0 each to the culture-starved inhabitants of the town and paid my passage home to England on a Union Castle steamer."
He recalled that in 1949 : "Arriving home, I was penniless and had two choices. I could either become an artist or a bus driver. I suspected that most artists starved in garrets, life as a bus driver seemed the safer bet. But my Dad was marvellous. He said that if I really wanted to be an artist, I’d better get some training. The only school we knew anything about was The Slade School of Fine Art in London, so I sent them my first bird painting. They turned me down, saying I had no talent."
He himself confessed that his “painting of birds of dubious ancestry, flying in anatomically impossible positions over a lavatorial green sea” didn't have much to commend it and it was now that a chance meeting at a Winchester cocktail party, when he was introduced to the Australian painter, Robin Goodwin, would change his life. Robin was a professional painter who specialised in portraits and marine subjects who didn't and wouldn't take students, but agreed to have a look at David's work.
David recalled that : "The next day, I trotted up to his studio in Chelsea and a miracle happened. I showed him that very first bird picture, which I still have and, for reasons that I have never been able to understand, he decided to take me on." "The very first half-hour I had with him ended in tears. "First of all" he told me, "if you think that because you're creative you're different from anyone else and that you can mop your forehead and wear pink trousers and go all Bohemian and only work when you feel like it, you can shove off. In November when it's so dark that you can't even see your canvas, you're going to be painting for the tax man, the food bills, and the school fees. Throwing paint at the wall and 'expressing yourself' doesn't pay the bills. Artists, like everyone else, have to work- eight hours and more a day, seven days a week to meet their responsibilities."
Robin tutored David for the next three years in the studio he rented from Augustus John in Tite Street, Chelsea, where he painted commissioned portraits for money and seascapes for love. Davis later described him as " A fully qualified, sensible artist who taught me to paint. If I had not met him I would be driving a bus. I owe him everything." Having said that, he was clearly a hard task master : "Robin never said anything complimentary about my work and he knew just how far to push me. Once I stormed out of his studio, determined never to return, but he leaned out of the window and called down to me in the street: "Don't be such a coward - I'm still teaching you, so you can't be that bad." "
He described his youth in 2015 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbY-Mhp65ZA&t=0m19s
With his training over in 1953, David began painting aviation pictures, inspired by memories of the skies over London when he was a boy during the War and he later recalled : ‘I got a permit, which gave me access to Heathrow Airport. In those days it was a friendly place, not the concrete jungle it is now. I could go almost anywhere I wanted, and lovely old planes like that became my subjects.’ He won a commission from the Chairman of BOAC and was then flown to Kenya by the Royal Air Force where : "Again, my life changed course. When I arrived they said to me : “We don’t want paintings of aircraft. Do you do local things like elephants?”And that’s how it all started.’ When he sold his first wildlife painting of a rhino for £25, his career took off.
David's artistic method was simple : He sought to be realist without being photographic and would typically honour something large and magnificent, such as an aeroplane, steam train or large mammal, which he would either set in a vast expanse of a sky, a plain, or other stage-like backdrop.
In 1955, at the age of 24 he was the subject of an episode of 'Astra Gazette,' the RAF Cine Magazine for its personnel, produced by British Pathé, in which the narrator told the cinema audience that David's painting of a steam locomotive "was alive in atmosphere, in character and rhythm. Alive because the artist has the power of understanding his subject; living with it until until he has the effect he desires. The artist is David Shepherd, his age - 24. Surprisingly enough, Shepherd is not a specialist. His versatility is apparent in studies of every description, yet the fundamental feature is always realism, something inevitably acquired by first hand knowledge. Little things like the brilliant glow of the sun's refection from an aircraft in flight. The vivid scenery below a Britannia over Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. One remembers that Shepherd once went to East Africa to be a game warden."
He was 29, when in 1960, the RAF flew him to Kenya as their guest : "When I arrived they said to me, : "We don't want paintings of aircraft, we fly them all day long. Do you do local things like elephants?" And that's how it all started. I hadn't even painted a rabbit before then." David charged the the Force £25, including the frame, for his very first wildlife painting of a rhino and, as he later reflected : "My career took off, and I've never looked back."
The visit would prove to be important for him in another way when, in one single dramatic moment, he became a conservationist. He found a waterhole poisoned by poachers, around which were lying 255 dead zebra. He realised then that, through his paintings, which were already in great demand, he could repay his debt to the wildlife and said : "The greatest thrill of my life is to be able to repay in fair measure the debt I owe to the animals I paint and which have brought me such success. We all have a debt to pay for our stay here. This is mine. "
Since that day 57 years ago, David has raised over £8 million for wildlife conservation, initially by donating the proceeds of the sale of his paintings to charities such as the 'World Wildlife Fund' and then, since 1984, through the efforts of the 'David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation' which campaigns to protect endangered species and combat poaching and its trade.
In 1962 he sold Boots the Chemists the copyright of 'Wise Old Elephant' for £100, which went on to sell 250,000 copies and twenty years later would be seen gracing the wall of the living room of the Trotter's flat in Nelson Mandela House in the BBC sitcom, 'Only Fools and Horses.'
David once said :
"I want to live to be 150. It will take that long to do everything I want to do. Unlike some people who perhaps lead a humdrum existence, I run almost everywhere I go because I am so anxious to get on with the joy of what I am doing next. "https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRKrNDz3bx0&t=2m17s