Charles Samuel Keene
(10 August 1823–4 January 1891)
In December 1851, he made his first appearance in Pencil and, after nine years of steady work, was called to a seat at the famous table. It was during this period of probation that he first gave evidence of those transcendent qualities which make his work at once the joy and despair of his brother craftsmen. On the starting of Once a Week, in 1859, Keene's services were requisitioned, his most notable series in this periodical being the illustrations to Charles Reade's A Good Fight (afterwards rechristened The Cloister and the Hearth) and to George Meredith's Evan Harrington. There is a quality of conventionality in the earlier of these which completely disappears in the later.
In 1858, Keene, who was endowed with a fine voice and was an enthusiastic admirer of old-fashioned music, joined the Jermyn Band, afterwards better known as the Moray Minstrels. He was also for many years a member of Leslie's Choir, the Sacred Harmonic Society, the Catch, Glee and Canon Club, and the Bach Choir. He was also an industrious performer on the bagpipes, of which instrument he brought together a considerable collection of specimens.
About 1863, the Arts Club in Hanover Square was started, with Keene as one of the original members. In 1864, John Leech died, and Keene's work in Punch thenceforward found wider opportunities. It was about this time that the greatest of all modern artists of his class, Menzel, discovered Keene's existence, and became a subscriber to Punch solely for the sake of enjoying week by week the work of his brother craftsman. In 1872, Keene, who, though fully possessed of the humorous sense, was not within measurable distance of Leech as a jester, and whose drawings were consequently not sufficiently funny to appeal to the laughter-loving public, was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Joseph Crawhall, who had been in the habit for many years of jotting down any humorous incidents he might hear of or observe, illustrating them at leisure for his own amusement. These were placed unreservedly at Keene's disposal, and to their inspiration we owe at least 250 of his most successful drawings in the last twenty years of his connection with Punch. A list of more than 200 of these subjects is given at the end of The Life and Letters of Charles Keene of Punch.
In 1879, Keene removed to 239 Kings Road, Chelsea, which he occupied until his last illness, walking daily to and from his house, 112 Hammersmith Road. In 1881, a volume of his Punch drawings was published by Messrs Bradbury & Agnew, with the title Our People. In 1883, Keene, who had hitherto been a strong man, developed symptoms of dyspepsia and rheumatism. By 1889, these had increased to an alarming degree, and the last two years of his life were passed in acute suffering borne with the greatest courage. He died unmarried, after a singularly uneventful life, and his body lies in Hammersmith cemetery. [Note: A different source lists Keen's death as January 10, 1891.]
Keene, who never had any regular art training, was essentially an artist's artist. He holds the foremost place amongst English craftsmen in black and white, though his work has never been appreciated at its real value by the general public. No doubt the main reason for this lack of public recognition was his unconventionality. He drew his models exactly as he saw them, not as he knew the world wanted to see them. He found enough beauty and romance in all that was around him, and, in his Punch work, enough subtle humour in nature seized at her most humorous moments to satisfy him. He never required his models to grin through a horse collar, as James Gillray did, or to put on their company manners, as was George du Maurier's wont. But Keene was not only a brilliant worker in pen and ink. As an etcher he has also to be reckoned with, notwithstanding the fact that his plates numbered not more than fifty at the outside.
Impressions of them are exceedingly rare, and hardly half a dozen of the plates were known to be in existence as of 1911. He himself regarded them only as experiments in a difficult but fascinating medium. But in the opinion of the expert they suffice to place him among the best etchers of the 19th century. Apart from the etched frontispieces to some of the Punch pocket-books, only three, and these by no means the best, have been published.
A few impressions are in the British Museum, but in the main they were given away to friends and lie hidden in the albums of the collector. The painter Walter Sickert cites Keene often in his book A Free House! or the Artist as Craftsman edited by Osbert Sitwell and recently republished by Arcade Press with the aid of painter Deborah Rosenthal, consulting editor of the new edition. Sickert describes the drawings of Keene as having an authenticity about them because he draws from life as a direct observer and avoids the usual cliches that were common in his day. Sickert urges the use of "sight size" drawing from life, by which he means to draw a 6 foot man from 8 feet away so the size of the figure can be seen as a whole and brought to the page as if one was drawing on a pane of glass while looking at the subject. "And so, from the incised designs on bones scratched by primeval man, to the drawings of Charles Keene, has line been the language of design... Line supposes an unbroken thought, a sentence said in a breath. Line supposes that the hand is not taken off the paper." There is an air of informality and directness to Keene's drawings that give them a sense of immediacy and vivacity.
A platinum print of a photographic portrait of Charles Samuel Keene, made by Horace Harral during the 1860s, was given to the National Portrait Gallery by John A Hipkins in 1927.
KEENE, CHARLES SAMUEL (1823–1891), humorous artist, was born in Duvals Lane, Hornsey, on 10 Aug. 1823. His father, Samuel Browne Keene of Furnival's Inn and Ipswich, was a solicitor, and died in 1838; his mother was Mary Sparrow, the daughter of John Sparrow of the Old, or Ancient, House, Ipswich, which stands in the Butter Market, and had been occupied by the Sparrow family for more than three centuries.
Charles Keene was educated at the grammar school in Foundation Street, Ipswich. When he quitted it, at sixteen years of age, he came to London to enter his father's office. The law was found to be uncongenial by one whose taste for drawing was already manifest; and he was placed with Mr. Pilkington an architect, of Scotland Yard. But his bias towards art was invincible, and he quitted Mr. Pilkington to become at the age of nineteen the apprentice of Messrs. Whymper, the wood-engravers. During his five years' apprenticeship he designed the illustrations to an edition of Robinson Crusoe. At the expiration of his apprenticeship to Messrs. Whymper, Keene worked for the Illustrated London News and other periodicals.
About 1851, he began to be employed on Punch, his first signed drawing for that paper, an initial, appearing on 3 June 1854. He also became a member of the well-known Clipstone Street Life Academy in Fitzroy Square, and he had a studio fitted ‘with auld nick-nackets: Rusty airn caps and jinglin' jackets’ in a garret in the Strand opposite Norfolk Street. In 1859 ‘Once a Week’ was established, and Keene made designs to the stories which appeared in its pages, notably Charles Reade's "A Good Fight" (the first form of "The Cloister and the Hearth") and the "Evan Harrington" of Mr. George Meredith. He also illustrated the"‘Caudle Lectures" of Douglas Jerrold; and early in life he supplied most of the cuts to a book of German songs translated by H. W. Dulcken.
He prepared an illustration and an initial to George Eliot's "Brother Jacob" for the Cornhill Magazine (July 1864); while eight plates and ten initial letters by him appear among the illustrations to the Roundabout Papers in the édition de luxe of Thackeray (1879), and he also etched some plates, one of which, a view of Southwold Harbour, appeared in the Etcher for March, 1881. But the bulk of his work up to 15 August 1890, when his last contribution to Punch, ‘'Arry on the Boulevard," appeared, was done for that periodical, its Almanack, and its now discontinued Pocket Book. In 1881, a volume of his Punch drawings appeared under the title of "Our People." From his Strand studio Keene moved to Clipstone Street, thence to Baker Street, thence to 11 Queen's Road, W., and finally to 239 King's Road, Chelsea, to which he used to walk daily from his residence in the Hammersmith Road. He died on 4 January 1891, after a protracted and painful illness. His last drawing, made in October 1890, with some difficulty, was a sketch after death of his favourite dog, "Frau," or "Toby," which from age and infirmity it had become necessary to destroy. This sketch was copied in Black and White for 21 March 1891. He was buried in Hammersmith cemetery. It was also exhibited in the same month with a large collection of Keene's later drawings at the Fine Art Society's rooms in New Bond Street. The catalogue of this exhibition, which contained an appreciative prefatory note from the pen of Mr. Claude Phillips, shows by its list of printed legends that Keene possessed a gift of epigrammatic brevity hardly second to that of Leech or Gavarni. A good portrait of him, taken in 1870, by J. D. Watson, was reproduced in the number of Black and White above referred to. A small half-length portrait by Sir George Reid, P.R.S.A., was exhibited at the Victoria Exhibition in 1892.
Keene was never married. A modest, retiring, unobtrusive man, he passed his long life in the placid practice of his art, neither solicitous of applause, nor courting the rewards of popularity. Simple in his tastes and habits, he had but slender sympathy with the ambitions and ostentations of society, confining his chosen associates to a few old and tried friends. He was alleged to be shy and uncommunicative; but in a congenial environment, where he could fill and re-fill the thick-stemmed, small-bowled "Fairy" pipe, which was his special weakness, he would talk with geniality and freedom. In the early days of the volunteer movement he was, as many of his Punch sketches testify, a devoted volunteer. He was also a passionate lover of music, being one of the original Moray minstrels and a member of Leslie's choir. In 1869, he began the study of the bagpipes, in which he attained remarkable proficiency. But he was fully aware that the prosperity of that instrument (like a jest) lies a little in the ears of those who hear it; and he was not unwilling to make pleasant pictorial fun out of his musical efforts.
When Keene died the critics began to repeat -- what artists generally had long known, and what the jury of the Paris Exhibition recognised in 1890, by the bestowal of a gold medal—that he was a most consummate artist in black and white. Perhap -- his own countrymen are not so much to be blamed for their neglect in this matter, since he never exhibited his Punch work at the Royal Academy. But his absolute command of the medium by which his work was to be presented to the public; his rigid suppression of the superfluous; his unfaltering instinct where to stay his stroke; these things, taken in connection with his fidelity to nature, his skill in composition, and his power of suggesting colour and seizing fugitive expression, made him an almost unique personality in humorous art. Like Fielding he sought his subject by preference among the middle and lower classes, holding perhaps, with the father of the English novel, that high life was deficient in "humour and entertainment." In any case, it is to Keene's delineations of the waiters and cabmen, the gamekeepers and Scotch gillies, the policemen and the volunteers, the tourists, the Thames anglers, the slaveys and the street boys of the last thirty years, that the historian of that period will have to go. He did not invent types like Mr. Briggs or Robert Macaire. Rather he drew life as he saw it, where he elected to look for it, humorously but not unkindly. And he did this in a manner altogether inimitable, setting it always in its appropriate background -- a background which is often a shorthand lesson in landscape and atmospheric effect.
[Obituary notices in the Athenæum and other journals; Mr. G. S. Layard issued Keene's Life and Letters in 1892; Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 30, by Henry Austin Dobson.
Charles Keene dead.
The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post (Bristol, England), Tuesday, January 6, 1891, p. 8; Issue 13307 -- Charles Keene dead.
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View painter's work: Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891)