In the early 1960s, a batch of drawings by Charles Keeping landed on my desk. As a junior designer, I was still stage-struck at being among the first handful to read a famous writer’s latest typescript, to see an illustrator’s original sketches, or to correct the printer’s actual proofs. But here was something different: these drawings had the audacity, intensity and quality of the greatest art you could ever hope to see in any gallery or print room. That first impression has never wavered. I still open any book illustrated by Charles Keeping with a sense of excitement, and know many readers do the same.
Charles was very proud of being a book illustrator and hated to be described as anything else. He was controversial and had fun trying to defend the profession to its critics, but felt that the core of it was something that couldn’t be taught. His range was immense. Few people are aware of all the different kinds of books for children and adults that he was involved with throughout a long working career. He illustrated well over 200 titles, and it is unlikely these will ever be brought together on the same shelves. Charles did not see books as products directed at separate collecting, informational, education or religious markets. I think that, whilst making common sense professional allowances, he resented all boundaries between children’s books and adult ones since he recognised no such barrier in his own life. So rather than look at his picture books, his illustrated novels, his non-fiction and so forth as categories, this brief survey looks at his work under four headings which he himself might have recognised: childhood, London and horses; history and heroes; responses to poetry and writing; and self-portraits.
Childhood, London and Horses
The first of these four cross-sections through his world looks back to Charles’s childhood in a London of vanished shops and trades, costermongers and working horses – closer in spirit to Dickens’s city than any televised reconstruction can be. He was born not in the East End as is often thought, but south of the river near Lambeth Walk, on 22 September 1924. Aspects of this secure Cockney childhood are recreated in nearly all his picture storybooks, from Shaun and the Cart Horse (1966) to Adam and Paradise Island (1989). As a young man, a job emptying gas meters took him into conditions of extreme squalor, which he told me was a great help and experience when it came to illustrating the whole of Dickens for The Folio Society, just as his childhood observation and later care for maltreated horses informed his definitive Black Beauty illustrations for Gollancz. So his colour picture books are based on his early childhood, and will always have something special to say to the child – perhaps to the one in twenty, for they are not to all children’s tastes – who encounters them in the right circumstances.
History and Heroes
Like his picture books, a second angle was initiated by Mabel George of Oxford University Press. That legendary children’s editor also commissioned the artists she had discovered (and at the same time as Charles Keeping she had recognised two other virtual unknowns-Brian Wildsmith and Victor Ambrus), to illustrate historical fiction. As Charles thought at first: `All those Romans and Vikings. Oh no! Not all those blokes clanging about with shields. Last thing I want to do!’ But do them he did, for the two writers with whom Mabel George linked his work – Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece – and gave them an immediacy and power all his own.
In the background to all the vigour and violence of these drawings, was his insistence that no child could be altogether shielded from accident, horror and inevitable realities, and it was not for publishers to veto the sensitive handling of these topics. Merchant seamen and soldiers had been plentiful among his ancestry, and Charles had inherited an old-fashioned sense of decorum and morals, which he combined with an artist’s sensibilities. A severe head injury sustained in an accident on board a Royal Navy ship, and the privations of working his way through art school and struggling to establish a living for his young family, resulted in an emphatic, almost daredevil quality in his early drawing which suited the Vikings admirably. This may help to account for the breathtaking originality he brought to book illustration, the honesty and risk of many of his statements, and his disdain for illustration as mere decoration or accompaniment.
These books illustrated for Oxford still stand up magnificently, as well as being experiments with the power and scope of illustration in the depiction of the heroic. Thereafter came numerous variations on this subject matter, and the mastery and refinement of his drawing simply continued to increase over the years. Here, as elsewhere, much remains out of print at present, but the classic collaborations with Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield: The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow, have recently been reissued.
Poetry and Writing
There is a third area I would like to distinguish, which is closely aligned to that just mentioned, but takes its character from Charles’s free choice of work by his favourite poets and writers. His visual storytelling in parallel to verse and narrative is striking and innovative. This is not quite the same thing as illustration as it is generally understood; as he says of his work with Leon Garfield on The Wedding Ghost: `Leon writes one story, and I almost illustrate a separate idea, a secondary theme … It’s like two jazz musicians playing together.’
The Highwayman, Beowulf and The Lady of Shalott, together with Leon Garfield’s The Wedding Ghost, form a quartet of black-and-white picture books which were the brainchild of Ron Heapy at Oxford University Press. The idea of monochrome picture books was wonderfully simple; all it required was a master illustrator who actually wanted to move in that direction. Charles’s gods included Goya, Daumier and Dore; and he was moving in any case in an ever more tenebrous and gothic direction during his final years. Ghost stories had gripped him since. childhood, and he had earlier collaborated on several collections with Helen Hoke Watts. He embarked on a further monochrome quartet for Blackie (Charles Keeping’s Book of Classic Ghost Stories, Charles Keeping’s Classic Tales of the Macabre, Dracula and Frankenstein). Charles was working on magnificent, but only preparatory, drawings for `The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ with Oxford until shortly before his death.
A fourth characteristic was self-portraiture (and, to a lesser extent, that of family and friends). This cuts across all the other categories. You can recognise him as the ticket-seller from Wasteground Circus or staring across a compartment at you in Inter-City; as Poe’s degenerating Monsieur Valdemar or Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Wildman; doing a paper-hatted ‘knees-up’ in his now scarce autobiographical songbook Cockney Ding-Dong, or carousing amidst the drunken warriors in Beowulf. As Patsy Lambe, once his agent at B L Kearley Ltd, told me: `Today I returned to look at some of Charles’s later children’s books. It gave me such an extraordinary feeling of sadness because there was Charles in the little boy, in the faces of the people, and sometimes even in his treatment of the animals. I opened the book again and there he was looking out at me; it was quite frightening but when I turned the page there were all the laughing faces.’
Charles was only 63 when he died on 16 May 1988, and with so much left to say. Talent on the scale he possessed it transcends comparisons, and this, coupled with the power of his imagery, set up feelings of awe and apprehension which proved to be quite at odds with the man. As Renate Keeping puts it: `Librarians, who on the whole were great followers and admirers of his work, sometimes asked Charles to give a talk. They would expect a brooding, depressed, bad-tempered man, and were surprised to meet such a charming, kind and humorous person.’
As Craig Raine said recently of Kipling, we are dealing with one of those rare individuals with whom the reader can go through life, starting with the children’s stories and eventually coming to terms with the later and more complex. In Keeping’s case this leads us from an early picture book (just re-published) like Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary on to the Complete Works of Charles Dickens (to be reissued later this year) in seamless transition. One of his major contributions was in breaking down barriers between kinds of children’s books and between those and adult books; he `just made the books’, and valued teachers’ and librarians’ professional skill in guiding and signposting the individual to them. In Keeping’s hands, illustration was simply a rightful and at times indispensable part of the printed book. He believed that there was scarcely a book which he could not illustrate if invited to, unless he found it politically or morally objectionable. Charles always encouraged aspiring illustrators and created openings for the determined, and through his own example gave resoundingly affirmative answers as to why book illustration exists at all, and what riches it has to offer.
Douglas Martin is a freelance book designer and author. As he points out, Charles Keeping `illustrated well over 200 titles and it is unlikely these will ever be brought together on the same shelves’. For the next best overview of this extraordinary artist, though, readers should turn to a new publication by Douglas himself. It’s called Charles Keeping: An Illustrator’s Life (Julia MacRae, 185681062 3, £40.00) Beautifully designed and produced, with a wise, well-informed text and more than 150 illustrations in full colour and black-and-white, it’s one of the best pictorial biographies I’ve ever come across. No college, school or library which takes illustration seriously should be without it. Illustrations accompanying this piece are taken from Douglas Martin’s book. Ed.
Currently available books mentioned in this article are all published by Oxford, unless otherwise stated:
Adam and Paradise Island, 019 2798421,£6.95
The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes, 019 279748 4, 6.99; 0 19 272133 X, £2.99 pbk
Beowulf, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 019 279770 0, £5.95; 019 272184 4, £2.99 pbk
The Lady of Shalott, Alfred’ Lord Tennyson, 019 27057 2, £6.95; 019 2722115, £3.95 pbk
The Wedding Ghost, Leon Garfield, 019 279779 4, £6.95, 019 272246 8, £3.99 pbk
Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary, 019 2742 8, £9.99 [for a review of this title, see page 37]
The God Beneath the Sea, Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen, Gollancz, 0 575 04831 X,112.99; 0 575 05256 2, £7.99 pbk
The Golden Shadow, Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen, 0 575 05255 4, £7.99 pbk
The 16 volumes of Dickens with Keeping illustrations will be published during 1994/95 by The Folio Society. For details, contact them at 202 Great Suffolk Street, London SE1 1PR or telephone 071 407 7411.
Sadly, all other titles are now out of print.