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Charles Keeping, Artist

November 26, 2020
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.

Before the lockdown, 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)

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    November 26, 2020

    What a gift the man had for pointing up the macabre, for highlighting in men the bestial, in women the slatternly — the violent, the brutish, the mawkish, the fearsomely unstable ! : Adults as children know them. His illustrations of Dickens are frankly terrifying. It says much about Crystal Palace that he chose it for his home. (I write from East Dulwich, safely distant.) Reminiscent of Ronald Searle, but without the softening dishonesty of humour : A great, great gift indeed. Thank you for sharing the images and interview.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 26, 2020

    Great stuff! The drawings of the horses and carts are particularly good.

    I wasn’t aware of his work before so thank you for the introduction to another great London artist.

  3. Terri Winfield permalink
    November 26, 2020

    I have loved Charles Keeping since I was at art school many many years ago. I have most of his picture books that I collected, some first editions. So lovely to read this! Didn’t know there was a gallery, must visit!
    Terri Winfield

  4. peter woodcock permalink
    November 26, 2020

    Wonderful interview! A really excellent artist/illustrator. Thanks.

  5. November 26, 2020

    My generation grew up with Charles Keeping: from his terrifying interpretations of ‘The Highwayman’ and ‘Beowulf’ to his book jackets for Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner, his work is endlessly fascinating. A reminder to put the Keeping Gallery at the top of places to visit post lockdown. Thank you!

  6. November 26, 2020

    Ah, reading this has really brightened up my day! I too love Charles Keeping’s work and have also had the pleasure of a visit to Shortlands. What a fantastic experience and so lovely for Vicky to bring it all alive! There was an exhibition of Keeping’s work at the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner at the start of lockdown. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to visit before it was closed. Hopefully, when things are open in some degree, we will be able to enjoy live viewings again.
    I never pass up an opportunity to collect books with Keeping’s illustration, I have a fair few now. But the Rosemary Sutcliff books are some of my favourites. A wonderful pairing of superb prose and illustration! But the Highwayman and the Wedding Ghost are also such great pairings too… All fantastic! Thanks for the article!

  7. November 26, 2020

    I love Charles Keepings work and highly recommend visiting the Keeping Gallery where you will see so much of his and wife Renate’s brilliant work.
    Also check The Keeping Gallery – officialkeepinggallery on Instagram for some interesting insights into Charles & Renate’s incredible range of work.

  8. November 26, 2020

    What a particularily wonderful piece from the Gentle Author- I would have been profoundly moved by his life story,as told by his children- and then in addition we find out he had this spectacular gift! I am going to Crystal Palace for Christmas and will make a point of finding his house. And, lock down permitting, in 2021 I will definitely be making a trip to Shortlands.

  9. November 26, 2020

    Really a fine Story about the Work of this Artist. Thanks for it.

    Love & Peace

  10. November 26, 2020

    Thanks for this piece: it reminds me of how many of my Puffin books were illustrated by Keeping – sometimes quite terrifyingly!

  11. November 26, 2020

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Your country has a MOST remarkable history of
    turning out incredible illustrators, designers, typographers, and all-folks-creative. I was not fully aware of this artist, although it sounds like he has been a mainstay for your countrymen.
    So unique — a wonderful body of work.

    May I say on this (American) Thanksgiving Day, how much I appreciate and regard you, GA.
    You bring optimism and fascination, every day. I am grateful.
    And big rumbly purrs to Mr. Schrodinger, too.
    Now — pass the gravy!!!

  12. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    December 12, 2020

    What a magnificent story about a superbly talented man! His artwork is absolutely wonderful.

    Thank-you, gentle author, for bringing this Keeping family story to our world.

    From the Land Down-Under……..

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