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Charles Keeping Illustrating paintbox picture books

September 5, 2016

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Charles Keeping (1924-1988) an illustrator and lithographer, produced dynamic and emotive images. Born in Lambeth, East London, his secure and happy upbringing had an unusually important effect in shaping both the man and the artist. Entering a working class family, there was no obvious route for Charles to get into art school. He spent his childhood in a house that overlooked an active stable yard, and became a frequent and accurate observer of horses and carts. He attended the Frank Bryant School for Boys, in Kennington, leaving at the age of 14 to become apprentice to a printer.

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He joined the Royal Navy Army at the age of 18, and fought in the Second World War, serving as a wireless operator.  He received a head wound which he became convinced would make him become a Jekyll and Hyde figure, but after being institutionalised, he recovered.  Determined to pursue his love of drawing, he applied several times to study art at the Regent Street Polytechnic, but was unable to get a grant.  He kept on applying, supporting himself by reading gas meters, and continuing drawing in the evenings.  It was at the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-52), where he met the designer and illustrator Renate Meyer, whom he later married. His books explore amazing roads into colour and texture, whilst dealing with solitary, often lonely figures in their tiny worlds.

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He took various jobs, including cartoonist on the Daily Herald, before starting work as a book illustrator. In 1956, he was commissioned by the Oxford University Press to illustrate stories for children written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, and with the encouragement of the doyenne of children’s book editors, Mabel George of OUP, was launched on a career which for three decades made him one of the best known and more prolific illustrators (1960-1980s). He made brilliant use of colour and the new printing techniques, using a mixture of gouache, tempera, watercolour and inks. He was an early enthusiast for Plasticowell, the grained plastic sheets designed by the printers, Cowells of Ipswich, for lithographic illustrations.

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Charles Keeping was always concerned with the lot of the working horse:  having been born in Lambeth, he was surrounded by them.  He wrote two picture books, Black Dolly and Sean and the Carthorse about ill-treated working horses, and one Richard, about a working police horse whose treatment is always fair.  Illustrating Black Beauty must have been something of a dream commission:  he dedicated his version “to all those concerned with the care and welfare of horses and ponies.”

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Keeping won the Kate Greenaway award for Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967), and again for The Highwayman (1981); he was a prize-winner in the Francis Williams Award for Tinker, Tailor (1968), and for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Wildman (1976); and he won the Emil Award in 1987 for Jack the Treacle Eater. He became particularly well known for his work on historical novels for children, especially tales by Rosemary Sutcliff, which often depicted Vikings, men in battle or war situations. Or similarly for Leon Garfield books about ghosts, creatures from the dark and other sinister characters.

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His commitment to the immense project to illustrate the complete Dickens for the Folio Society was total, and he completed it just before his death on 16 May 1988. He became the first illustrator to complete a full edition of Dickens illustrated by a single artist. His wife Renate, also an artist, set up a website called The Keeping Gallery so that both of their work can be treasured.

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Have you ever seen such colour in books before ?

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Thanks to Matt for sending in these scans after seeing this post.

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Amazing use of rich shading and textures. Wonderful work Mr Keeping.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2016 10:19 am

    Excellent post – well done. Charles Keeping was unique and an inspiration to many . . .

    • September 5, 2016 4:12 pm

      Thanks James, it’s very true, but I don’t hear his name mentioned as often as it should be. Wonderful, colourful work.

  2. September 5, 2016 11:35 pm

    I’m always so grateful to you and your blog for introducing me to wonderful illustrators. I absolutely love the dynamic line work and the scratchy texture to these illustrations.

  3. alibrookes permalink
    September 9, 2016 2:35 pm

    Wonderful post! I love the way Keeping uses colour and texture, and the attention to detail is outstanding!

  4. September 9, 2016 4:32 pm

    I find his colored illustrations mesmerizing. And who would have thought to illustrate what one was drawing in the moisture on a window? And he captured the idea and emotion so well! I felt the suspense and emotion in his illustrations for ‘Through The Window’ as if I were Jacob! Well done Craig, thanks for sharing. Hope things are going well for you.

    • September 9, 2016 5:21 pm

      I think his coloured work captures my attention the most too, especially where the colours are almost overpowering. I haven’t seen many artists working in this way from that period before. Glad you enjoyed it Joy, all well here thanks and with you too I hope.

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