Skip to content

Charles Keeping, Illustrator

July 26, 2018
by the gentle author

The illustrations of Charles Keeping (1924–1988) burned themselves into my consciousness as a child and I have loved his work ever since. A major figure in British publishing in the last century, Keeping illustrated over one hundred books (including the entire novels of Dickens) and won the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie Medals for his superlative talent.

In 1975, Keeping published ‘Cockney Ding Dong,’ in which he collected songs he remembered sung at home as a child. Illustrated with tender portraits of his extended family, the book is an unusual form of autobiography, recreating an entire cultural world through drawing and popular song.

I visited the Keeping Gallery at Shortlands in Kent to meet Vicky and Sean Keeping who talked to me about their father’s work, as we sat in the family home where they grew up and where much of his work is now preserved and displayed for visitors. You can read my interview at the end of this selection of illustrations from ‘Cockney Ding Dong.’

Illustrations  copyright © Estate of Charles Keeping

The Gentle Author – So why did your father create ‘Cockney Ding Dong’ ?

Vicky Keeping – We come from a family – he came from a family – where they all got together. They’d have their beer, they enjoyed their beer, and their Guinness – some of the women drank Guinness – and they would all sing and his Uncle Jack would play the piano. And everybody had their own song, so people would give their song and Dad loved that. We still know them all still, because we loved it, and people didn’t say, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to do it!’ They just got up and sang, and it was lovely and the songs were all from the music hall.

The Gentle Author – But he wasn’t a Cockney – where was he was from?

Vicky Keeping – He was from Vauxhall and he was born in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth. He was very much brought up by the female side of his family. His father passed away when he was ten, he had a burst ulcer. He was a driver on the Daily Star.

Sean Keeping – Before that, his father had been a professional boxer between about 1912 and 1922. He had many professional fights. I know he definitely fought the British champion at the time and won! A chap called Ernie Rice.

His father came from a very poor family and he was orphaned. They had a watercress stall in Lambeth Walk but they died in the workhouse. His mother’s family were also Londoners from Lambeth who came from a nautical background – his grandfather had been a sailor in the Merchant Navy. In the eighteenth century, they had come up to London from the West Country. Like many families, they had not originated in London.

Vicky Keeping – His grandfather was very important to Dad, because he was a great storyteller and would tell stories from his voyages and the different people he met and he was – I suppose – a bit ahead of his time because he was welcoming to all and would speak very positively about the people he met around the world. Dad loved hearing his stories, so he learnt from his grandfather that storytelling was important. That came through to us as well – when we sat round the family tea table we were encouraged to tell stories.

Very sadly, Dad’s dad and Dad’s grandfather passed away in the same year – in 1934 – when Dad was ten. It left Dad and his sister Grace and their mum Eliza very poorly off, but they lived in this extended family with Dad’s granny who was a very strong influence. Dad idolised her and his aunties, and they thought he was the blonde blue-eyed boy and they loved him dearly.

Sean Keeping – They lived in a small terraced house in 74 Vauxhall Walk, which was right alongside the market, and Dad’s early influences were not just his family but also the characters in Vauxhall Market – those often crop up in his books.

Vicky Keeping – One of the things that Dad loved to do in the garden was to look through a little knot hole to see the Schweppes bottling plant and the workhorses and that was something that never left him, that memory of horses.

There was no obvious creativeness in his background, but Dad said his father used to come home – because he worked in print – and bring home paper, and Dad’s sister Grace used to write a story and Dad would illustrate it.

Sean Keeping – He was not a child who would have gone running around the streets, they were children who would sit at home writing a story and drawing. From a very young age, Dad showed a fantastic aptitude for drawing and we’ve got some drawings of his from when he was twelve and thirteen, and they are really fantastic – showing a London of working horses and working people, that’s what he was trying to depict in his drawings.

Vicky Keeping – He was called up in the Second World War but he worked for Clowes the printers when he left school at thirteen. He was not a particularly great scholar at school. One of the things was that he found difficult was that he was left-handed and the teachers would try to get him to write with his right hand.

Sean Keeping – Working for Clowes the printers, he would go around on a horse & cart delivering paper, and that was where he met one of the characters who had a great influence on him – Tom Cherry. Many of the burly-looking men driving a horse through London in Dad’s pictures – they’re Tom Cherry, and usually he drew a little boy sitting next to him which was Dad. Tom had a great influence, telling him stories about London and the people of London.

Vicky Keeping – Dad became a Telegrapher on a frigate and he was on the boat at D-Day. After the war, he tried to get into Art College but that was very difficult, so he worked collecting pennies from gas meters. He worked for the Gas Light & Coke Company and he would go around on a bicycle, with a big sack on his shoulder with all the pennies in it, going from door to door in North Kensington. He used to tell us funny stories. At that time, North Kensington was a poor area and I think he got a lot out of the characters he met there, but he hated working for a company, for a boss, and he decided he wanted to do something better.

He went to night classes at the Regent St Polytechnic but, because he left school at thirteen with no formal qualifications and had been through the war, it was very difficult for him to get in at first. He tried and tried, and eventually he spent time in a psychiatric hospital due to his experiences in the War. I think it was also to do with his father. When his father and his grandfather died in the same year, they were laid out in the front room and – as a ten year old – Dad had to go and kiss them. That had a profound effect on him. He spent six months in a psychiatric hospital and two weeks of those were in a deep sleep. Yet he talked about the great characters he met there and there was a Psychiatrist, Dr Sargent, who knew Dad should go to Art College and he supported him in writing letters – and eventually that’s what happened.

Sean Keeping – When Dad went to Art College, he had to fight hard to get a grant because, at that stage, his mother had been widowed for a number of years and she had a job cleaning, so there was not a lot of money around. But eventually, he got a grant to go to Regent St Polytechnic. Right after the war, there were two types of students – those that had just come out of the forces who were much more mature and those who had come directly from school. So it was an interesting mix of people and mix of cultures.

The Gentle Author – How did he set out to make an income as an illustrator?

Sean Keeping – Dad was not motivated by making a career or making money or even motivated – I think – by success. Dad was motivated by one thing and that was doing what he wanted to do – drawing pictures of things that he wanted to draw pictures of – so he never really thought about a career. But then he got a job on the Daily Herald, drawing the strip cartoon and that started to pay very well, and from that he was able to move out of the council flat that he lived in with his mother in Kennington and buy a small terraced house in Crystal Palace.

When they were looking for houses, once he was making money from the strip cartoon, they looked in two areas – one was Crystal Palace and the other was Chelsea. Now the idea that you might choose Crystal Palace or Chelsea to look for a house nowadays is an strange idea, but they decided on Crystal Palace!

(Transcription by Rachel Blaylock)

Visit The Keeping Gallery at Shortlands in Kent where you can see the work of both Charles & Renate Keeping preserved in their family home. Visits are by appointment arranged through the website and Shortlands is a short train ride from Victoria.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Rachel Jowitt permalink
    July 26, 2018

    Also one of my favourite illustrators from childhood. Thank you for sharing these :-)

  2. July 26, 2018

    What a talented artist he was. Valerie

  3. Richard Smith permalink
    July 26, 2018

    Thank you for telling us about Charles Keeping. What a talented man and what a life he lived. His illustrations show an individual approach that is original and done with real style.

  4. Linda Pennell permalink
    July 26, 2018

    Many thanks for this reminder. I was a great admirer of his work when I was a librarian in the 70s and 80s. Your recent article on Swan Upping led me to remember a book from that era by Juliette Palmer and I am so pleased I have managed to track down a copy albeit from Australia! PS a great pleasure to encounter you in Betwen the Lines bookshop recently.

  5. Judi Jones permalink
    July 26, 2018

    Thank you for sharing those illustrations and bring my attention to Charles Keeping – brilliantly talented artist.

  6. July 26, 2018

    Beautiful, evocative drawings depicting such familiar sights to me and bringing back memories of family’ ding-dongs’ with aunties and uncles having a ‘knees up’.
    The coal man with a 100 cwt of coal on his back was a familiar figure during the winter to our house and those rag and bone men on horse drawn carts were regular visitors to our street.
    Thank you Gentle Author, Sean and Vicky for sharing this story, I intend to visit the Keeping Gallery to see more of this incredible body of work.

  7. July 26, 2018

    An artist who was able to share his profound love of the working class culture he grew up in with the rest of the world. I wonder if there are any examples of his work for the Daily Herald? Thanks for publishing this. I feel as if I recognise all the characters singing. Brilliant.

  8. July 26, 2018

    I would strongly recommend a visit to Shortlands. I met Vicky and had a wonderful look around the gallery. Vicky is such an engaging host who gave me a real insight into her Dad’s work and background. Not only that, but introduced me to her Mother’s work, which I knew very little about and would be worth visiting to see on its own. I cherish my collection of books illustrated by Charles Keeping all the more for the visit. I also discovered while chatting a wonderful coincidence; Vicky Keeping’s Sister-in-law is church warden at the church I attend with my family!

  9. julia harrison permalink
    July 26, 2018

    Thank you for this marvellous post. An extraordinary talent: i was spellbound by his illustrations for Beowulf and The Highwayman and am so interested that you can still make an appointment to visit his home.

  10. July 26, 2018

    Thank you for bringing Keeping’s work to the fore in this piece. I, too, was dazzled by his work when younger: I particularly remember his illustrations to Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, such as ‘Warrior Scarlet.’ Keeping was enormously talented, and it was very interesting to read of his early life, which I didn’t know about at all.

  11. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 26, 2018

    One of my most cherished possessions is a copy of “The Highwayman” signed for me by Charles Keeping. He visited Toronto in the early 1980s, along with ‘giants’ John Rowe Townsend, Jan Mark, and Jill Paton Walsh. (I believe Philippa Pearce was also on the tour.)

    The room where the four of them met children’s literature fans was packed. SRO in the bookstore. They answered audience questions with patience, insight and lots of laughter. Very memorable, all of them. I recall that Keeping had quite a few Canadian children’s book illustrators wanting him to sign their copies of his books. What a long line!

    And what a legacy those creators left behind them! I hope to one day get to the Keeping Gallery.

  12. Saba permalink
    July 26, 2018

    GA, wonderful. I don’t understand for sure about the media. Are these all ink or watercolor used with a brush? GR

  13. July 26, 2018

    I realize this amazing artist is quite familiar to many of you — But imagine those of us who have
    only JUST discovered his work this morning?? I am “down the rabbit hole”, enjoying every aspect of his work as illustrator/designer. His sense of composition, in addition to his illustration skills –
    quite singular. Your nation’s rich history of noted illustrators is bottomless — and this gent
    is part of the legacy. Wonderful, wonderful work! (when I read “the entire novels of Dickens”
    my heart soared, and I’ll be on the hunt)

  14. Juliet permalink
    July 27, 2018

    As a child, two of my favourite books as a child we’re illustrated by Keeping.
    The cover of “The Red Towers of Granada” showed a troupe of galloping horses.
    “Elidor” had a fierce unicorn, rearing up in swirling mist.

  15. Rob Ramsden permalink
    July 29, 2018

    Hi, can you please tell me if the gallery is still open? There’s no information on the Keeping Gallery website which I can see regarding the address or opening times etc. I would love to visit there, and I can’t believe that there is a gallery dedicated to Charles Keeping’s work, which I love. Thanks in advance of your reply! All the best, Rob ps this is a fantastic and enlightening article!

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS