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Charles Keeping (1924–88) is an illustrator it is difficult to have neutral feelings about. His strong and vivid drawings are full of energy and demand a response. His drawings for Alan Garner’s unicorn fantasy, Elidor, capture brilliantly the ferocious swirl of movement as Elidor bursts into the human world; his Grendel is petrifying, and skulls stalk his Highwayman. Although not known as an equine illustrator (Keeping illustrated very many children’s books, but most notably the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece), horses were part of his upbringing and appeared frequently in his art. He wrote relatively few books himself, but of those he did, three were concerned with the working horse.
Charles Keeping was born in South London, in Vauxhall Walk. He was fascinated with the working horses he saw about him as a child, and drew them (having started early - by the age of five or six he was illustrating his sister’s stories). He wrote:
'... and when it comes to my own actual work later in life, I tend to keep within what I could see as a child ... A yard which had cart horses, and I could see these vast shapes of horses moving across this wall. These very simple images attracted me ... I also enjoyed being taken into that yard next door and sat on the backs of cart horses. This was a very, very exciting thing for a child. It had an element of fear, because the animals were so large, and it had a feeling of almost sensuous comfort because the horses were furry and warm. When I got back home, I used to draw those horses and what I had seen in that stable.'
Born into a working class family, there was no obvious route for Keeping to get into art school. He joined the Royal Navy 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. He did succeed in studying at Regent Street, and after leaving, specialised in illustrating children's books.
He became well known for his illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels; illustrated a collected edition of Dickens for the Folio Society, and won the Kate Greenaway medal in 1967 for his own Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary and again in 1970 for his version of Alfred Knoyes' The Highwayman.
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 another, 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.'
Finding the books
Richard is reasonably easy to find; Shaun and the Cart-horse is cheapest as an American edition. Even as an ex-library copy, its British edition is not necessarily cheap. Black Dolly can be very expensive as a first edition; in its American incarnation it’s much cheaper. The books illustrated by Charles Keeping and included in the partial bibliography are reasonably easy to find.
Links and sources
The Telling Line, Essays on Fifteen Contemporary Book Illustrators, Douglas Martin, Julia McRae, 1989
Charles Keeping – an Illustrator’s Life by Douglas Martin, Julia McRae, 1993
Charles Keeping's wife runs the Keeping Gallery
More illustrations of Keeping’s edition of Black Beauty
Bibliography: pony books only
Shaun and the Cart-Horse, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1966, 32 pp. Illus the author.
Reprinted 1968, 1973, 1979
Franklin Watts, New York, 1966, 32 pp.
Black Dolly, the Story of a Junk Cart Pony, Brockhampton Press Ltd, Leicester, 1966, 32 pp. Illus the author.
Reprinted Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1983, pb, and in 1984
Reprinted as Molly o’ the Moors, the Story of a Pony
World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1966
Richard, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, 32 pp. Illus the author.
Illustrated by Charles Keeping
Mollie Hunter - Kelpie’s Pearls, Blackie, London, 1964
Alan Garner - Elidor, Collins, London, 1965
Alfred Noyes: The Highwayman, Oxford University Press, London, 1981, 32 pp.
Anna Sewell - Black Beauty, Gollancz, London, 1988, 224 pp, hb
Reprinted in pb, 1990