Ron Heapy, his editor at Oxford University Press, remembers what it was like
Charles Keeping died on Monday, 16 May 1988. He was one of the most revered and respected illustrators of the last twenty years. Technically in a class of his own, he brought insights into his subject matter that were unique because of the man he was.
‘Once I got the window, I was okay. Yes, thanks, I’ll have a bottle of beer. I always come here ‘cos the fish is good. I love fish.’ And there it was – The Highwayman, all stuck together in miniature, in the amazing little concertina Charles always did for his books. ‘You must get the horizon line consistent through the book, and print it in warm black. At the end of the book, just reverse it out. Saves work.’
That was the pattern for all our first meetings on a book. Always a bottle of beer, always fish, the concertina, and descriptions of where Charlie had eaten fish on the weekend. Anyway, we printed The Highwayman in warm black – brown and black actually – and Charles got the Kate Greenaway Medal. ‘Yes, it was good to get into black and white again. Stopped me doing my fruit salad effect. But don’t ever ask me to draw mice with clothes on.’ ‘No, Charles, we won’t.’
In fact we asked Charles to do Beowulf next. For all his Cockney manner, Charles was the most intelligent and perceptive artist I’ve ever worked with. He would get right through to the heart of a text and bring out something unique which no one had ever thought of or will think of again. On Beowulf: ‘I’ve got to make the monsters sympathetic, especially the mother. I mean her son’s just been bloody killed! No wonder she’s angry.’ When things went wrong, he was quick on his feet. ‘Charles, your concertina hasn’t worked. We’ve got three blank pages here.’ ‘Don’t worry, Ron. Here’s what we’ll do.’ And no one ever spotted the joins in the book.
The idea of Sammy Streetsinger had been around for a while, but it wasn’t quite right as Sammy was a film star throughout. ‘Charles, why not turn him into a rock star? Try watching Top of the Pops for three months.’ Charles did and hated it, but caught the style and atmosphere of rock and conveyed his hatred in the tone of his words. He had a good ear and we never had to alter his words. That’s Charlie’s voice in there. In fact the problems he had in the book weren’t to do with the rock world. ‘I’m sick of drawing bloody tiles, Ron. I’ve been down in this underpass for weeks, just drawing tiles. And then there’s all these bloody heads as well. Two hundred and fifty of them.’
Once he’d got the vision of a book and knew what he wanted to do, he was away and would dig in quite fiercely if he thought you were wrong or didn’t understand him. On The Wedding Ghost: ‘What’s that, Charles?’ ‘That’s a barge. Ron.’ ‘Sorry, Charles.’ But at the same time he was flexible and open to suggestions which he thought made sense. We had some good arguments over The Lady of Shalott. ‘What’s with this falling rose effect, Charles’?’ Back comes a completely new framework. ‘It’s like a strip-tease, sort of. She’s lonely and vulnerable. There she is, sitting in that lonely tower, without a stick of furniture.’ The book showed Charles’s great draughtmanship and also showed the sexual undertones which could appear in his work, which bothered some critics. ‘I always draw the figure nude. Then I put the clothes on.’ But again he got right to the heart of the poem.
We argued over the cover of Shalott but in a good humoured way. ‘I think we need a colour, Charles.’ ‘Yes, a sort of damson,’ he said. ‘Let’s look at all these women’s dresses and pick one.’ (All this was happening at the Kate Greenaway Award which Charles, to his disgust, didn’t get for Sammy.) So we prowled round eminent lady librarians together, looking at their dresses and raising suspicious glances. Eventually we found the right shade of damson on a lady called Viv. ‘Can we borrow your dress a minute’?’ She took it well.
Charles always had a great passion for the sea and was working on a large 48-page version of The Ancient Mariner when he died. This could have been marvellous and now we’ll never see it. I was looking forward to our usual arguments over it. ‘What’s that, Charles?’ ‘That’s an albatross, Ron.’ ‘Sorry, Charles.’
Ironically, just after he died, the artwork for his new colour book, Adam and Paradise Island, came back from the designer with the type on, all ready to go. I sit surrounded by Charlie’s artwork and keep on reaching instinctively for the ‘phone. There’s a problem on the cover and I need to talk to him, but he’s not there. The sense of loss I feel for this dear, warm man is appalling and I don’t know what to do. I only hope that wherever he is, they serve fish. Good-bye, Charlie, and Amen.
The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes, 0 19 279748 4, £4.50; 0 19 272133 X, £2.50 pbk
Beowulf, Kevin Crossley-Holland, 0 19 279770 0, £5.95; 0 19 272184 4, £2.50 pbk
Sammy Streetsinger, 0 19 279782 4, £4.95
The Wedding Ghost, Leon Garfield, 0 19 279779 4, £5.95
The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 0 19 276057 2, £4.95
Adam and Paradise Island, 0 19 279842 1, £6.95 (Spring 89)