Charles Keene (1823–91) is one of the most admired of the black and white artists at work during the Sixties, especially by other artists who were his contemporaries. He became known as ‘The Artist’s Artist’ following a publication so titled by Lionel Lindsay, which appeared in 1934. Among many of these were also included practitioners as diverse as Walter Sickert, Degas, Roger Fry and William Rothenstein. In a lecture George du Maurier said, ‘With all my admiration for Leech it was at the feet of Charles Keene that I found myself sitting.’ Keene was a naturally gifted draughtsman and although noted for his numerous cartoons, almost invariably of the lower classes in the pages of Punch, he is really a far more interesting and varied illustrator than this remark suggests.

Stylistically he was much influenced by Alfred Menzel and German romantic art in general – Menzel himself was a master of the vignette and it seems that it was the strong and sharp linear style which so appealed to British illustrators, notably J.E. Millais, du Maurier and Keene himself. Keene and Menzel became friends and regularly exchanged drawings, and it seems that the German artist took out a subscription to Punch entirely because of the presence of Keene’s drawings in its pages.

Two of Keene's Punch cartoons: Left: (a) The Other Way About (1888). Right: Brother Brush (1867). [Click on these images for larger pictures and complete captions.]

Keene was an expert dealing with comic tales, as might be expected, yet he also illustrated adventure stories for boys, works of travel and instruction, novels and poetry. In July 1864 in The Cornhill Magazine he produced an apt design and an initial letter vignette for George Eliot’s short story, Brother Jacob, which was his only contribution to this periodical.

However, in London Society, a much lighter journal than the august Cornhill, he was clearly more at home and produced a number of lively designs which manage to shine through despite the somewhat slipshod engraving which was often apparent in this magazine. In Once a Week Keene made a number of outstanding contributions, notably for Charles Reade’s A Good Fight (July–October 1859) which, when it appeared (1860) in book form under Trübner’s imprint, was retitled more familiarly as The Cloister and the Hearth. Sadly by the mid 1880s, when it was republished by Chatto and Windus, Keene’s initial fifteen designs had been reduced inexplicably to eight.

Three illustrations from The Cloister and the Hearth — Left to right: (a) “I have saved you. Your knife! quick”. (b) In rushed Dierich. (c) Clement flung himself wildly on his knees [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Keene also produced outstanding designs for a number of other novels in Once a Week. Between February and October 1860 he produced forty illustrations for George Meredith’s Evan Harrington and these show the illustrator at his most inventive and imaginative. There was no consultation between the author and his interpreter, and Keene was free, as G.S. Layard remarks, ‘to select his own incidents’. The result was one of the most complex visual responses of the period. The artist effectively captures the novel’s concern with the nuances of manners, respectability and snobbery, and ‘gave the novelist entire satisfaction’ (Layard, p. 64). Forrest Reid thought that ‘the drawings for Evan Harrington were [to his] mind, equal to any that were made for a novel’ (p.123), a judgment that brackets Keene with J.E. Millais (the illustrator of Trollope) and Fred Walker (Thackeray). Equally fine are the seventeen drawings he made between June and December 1862 for Mrs Henry Wood’s Verner’s Pride,injecting a note of lyricism that complements the Sensational tone. These works helped to establish Once a Week as one of the prime illustrated magazines; however, after 1862 the frequency of his appearances here begin to decline.

In books Keene’s fine early designs for Robinson Crusoe (1847) should be noted, while arguably his most Germanic drawings are to be found in The Book of German Songs (1856) with its numerous Menzel-like vignettes; all are admirable in their way. Although he made a number of contributions to books in the period he should be best remembered for two works which he illustrated single-handed: The Cambridge Grisette (1862) by Herbert Vaughan and, perhaps his masterpiece in book illustration, Douglas Jerrold’s Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures (1866). Here the magnificence of his draughtsmanship is coupled with a genuinely funny text which bears re-reading even today. Unusually and strikingly there is a colour lithographed frontispiece also by Keene; few black and white books of the period are similarly enhanced. For a decent sampling of his designs for Punch,the anthology Our People (1881) fills the bill more than adequately.

Further reading and works cited

For detailed analysis and listings of Keene’s book and periodical designs (with the exception of the drawings for Punch) see the present author’s Victorian Illustration. Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington VT: Lund Humphries, 2004, pp. 233–234 and pp. 287–289.

Layard, G.S. Charles Samuel Keene.London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1892.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975


Last modified 17 April 2014w