Charles Samuel Keene – “Draw a thing as you see it!”

Photo of Charles Keene seated looking to the left.
Charles Keene by Elliot & Fry (Wikipedia)

Charles Samuel Keene was born into a middle-class family in August 1823 in Hornsey, Middlesex (these days, it is part of the London Borough of Haringey). His father, Samuel Browne Keene, was a solicitor of Furnival’s Inn and his mother Mary was a member of the prominent Sparrow family of Ipswich, Suffolk. Keene was first educated at a boarding school in Bayswater, together with his younger brother Henry. His family then moved to Ipswich, probably a couple of years before 1838, and they lived in his mother’s old family home. He and Henry entered the Grammar School in Foundation Street there. Apparently, Keene had quite delicate features and was called ‘Miss Keene’ by his schoolmates. According to an anecdote told by one of his sisters and recorded by his early biographer George Somes Layard, he and one of his cousins dressed up as girls one day and applied for a servant position in the Sparrow household. Legend has it that one of them succeeded in securing a situation; sadly, it is not known, which one of them.

Biographer Simon Houfe assumes that Keene’s later love for antiques, books and art developed during this time in Ipswich as the Sparrows were very cultured, and his uncle William Sparrow was an artist. Like his fellow illustrators John Leech (1817-64) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), he also seems to have enjoyed doodling during his school lessons. Keene fell irrevocably in love with Suffolk, the birthplace of famous painters Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and John Constable (1776-1837), and would spend holidays in his favourite county as an adult. However, tragedy struck when Keene’s father died in early January 1838 and his mother was left a widow with five children – Charles and Henry, and their sisters Mary, Anne and Kate. By late 1839, they had moved back to London and teenager Charles entered his father’s firm at Furnival’s Inn.

It turned out that the legal profession was not for him, so he was placed with the architect William Pilkington. He continued to draw in his spare time, and his mother appreciated and encouraged her son’s talent. She even took it upon herself to find buyers for his work. At first, it seemed a hopeless enterprise, but her persistence was eventually rewarded, and his drawings were sold to a dealer for modest sums. His images caught the attention of one of the Whypmer brothers, the well-established wood engravers. As a result, he was apprenticed to their workshop for five years in 1842.

For the first part of his apprenticeship, he still lived with his family, but when his mother decided to move to Lewisham with his siblings, he took his own lodgings in Bloomsbury. In addition, he rented a ramshackle studio in the Strand. That place certainly left a lasting impression on those who visited him. A Mr W. L. Thomas described the place as follows:

“[…] a gabled house with his room projecting, and the floor sloping in an alarming manner over the street.  One had to climb a dark, rickety staircase, and, after fumbling among some old woodwork, you found the door. You then had to make your way by dodging and stooping your head amongst clothes-lines drawn across the room, carrying all sorts of old costumes and properties […].”

As for the young Charles Keene himself, Henry William Dulcken (1832-1894), for whose translation of German Songs from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (1856) Keene did some of his first book illustrations, describes him as “[…]a very grave, saturnine-looking young fellow, with a face like a young Don Quixote […].” He was rarely seen without one of his ancient, little clay pipes, some of which had been recovered from building sites or even the mud of the Thames. He preferred smoking ‘dottles’ – tobacco leftovers scraped out of previous pipes and kept in little tins for reuse. He would light his pipes the old-fashioned way with flint and steel rather than matches. Just like his bohemian lifestyle, his attire was unconventional and always seemed a little out of date; Layard mentions that he, for example, never wore a top hat. As Forrest Reid writes, he “was a man of strong individuality, and from boyhood pursued his own way.”

Like many of his contemporaries, he had a passion for antiquities. He enjoyed searching for old books and prints and collected music and flints. His acquisitions were discussed at length in letters to friends. He had a good singing voice and was a member of various choirs such as the ‘Jermyn Band’ and ‘Leslies’ Choir’. The ‘Jermyn Band’, named after the street near Piccadilly where they first met, was later re-christened the ‘Moray Minstrels’ after Moray Lodge in Kensington, where the choir relocated to. It was the residence of well-heeled silk merchant Arthur James Lewis and his wife, the actress Kate Terry (1844-1924), sister of actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Many of the Punch staff took part in those vespertine musical get-togethers. Keene also taught himself to play the bagpipes and achieved a considerable level of skill.

Frederick Walker (British, London 1840–1875 Perthshire, Scotland)
The Moray Minstrels (Invitation card of Arthur J. Lewis), 1865
Wood engraving; Sheet: 5 13/16 × 8 1/4 in. (14.7 × 20.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1958 (58.503.2)

Although an avid draughtsman from early age, Keene never had any formal training. From around 1848, he would visit the weekly life drawing sessions of what would become known as the Langham Artists’ Society. Here, he could study the nude and dressed model and enhance his natural talent. He kept attending those meetings for over a decade. During his holidays in the countryside of Surrey, where he rented a cottage for many years, and in Suffolk, he always extensively studied and drew the landscape.

The frontispiece of American author Samuel Griswold Goodrich’s (1793-1860) novel The Adventures of Dick Boldhero (1842) appears to be one of Keene’s earliest works as an illustrator, created whilst he was still in the employ of the Whymper Brothers. Another early commission was James Burns’ 1847 edition of The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Keene carried on working for the Whymper Brothers as and when required and also started contributing to the Illustrated London News together with his friend and fellow wood-engraving apprentice Samuel Read (1815-83), the future manager of that journal’s art department. They were both, for example, involved in creating depictions of Sebastopol and the Crimean War (1853-56). Keene did not particularly enjoy this sort of journalistic illustration, but it was a steady source of income for the time being.

From 1851, Keene had begun contributing illustrations to Punch magazine. At first, his designs were made for one of his friends, the journalist Henry Silver (1828-1910). As Silver commented himself: “I was writing then for ‘Punch’ as an outsider, but my ambition was to draw, and for this I had no talent.” So, Keene undertook the task to illustrate the writer’s texts but without signing them. Silver wrote to Layard that this left editor Mark Lemon (1809-70) under the impression that he did his own illustrations and complimented him on his skills. This led the journalist to induce Keene to sign his works, so that he would not get into trouble for getting the credit. The first initialled work in Punch by Keene appeared thus in 1854. Although he had worked for the periodical since the early 1850s, he did not appear at the infamous Punch table before 1860. It was there, where every Wednesday the ‘big cuts’ – full page cartoons, mainly commenting on current political affairs – were discussed over dinner.

Like John Leech (1817-64), he was an observer of society, especially street life and the ‘lower’ classes, and had a real knack for emulating local accents and dialects in his captions. He would be very upset if an editor changed his ‘legends’ – as he called them – at all, be it the tiniest of alterations. He rarely invented his own jokes but would get his inspiration from his friend Joseph Crawhall, who jotted down and sketched jokes in a collection of albums. When Leech died in 1864, Keene took over as the main illustrator of daily life at Punch. Just as Leech before him, he would leave the political cartoons and big cuts to John Tenniel (1820-1914). As one of the chief illustrators, he would also contribute to the annual Punch Pocket Book for many years and design its fold-outs and hand-coloured frontispieces. The Pocket Books were a mixture of business calendar, notebook and a light entertainment section, and published before Christmas between 1843 and 1881. They were created as an extra source of income, just as the annual Punch Almanack. Although he created between two- and three thousand drawings for Punch, Keene never became a salaried member of staff; instead, he preferred to be paid for each piece he delivered.

Punch illustrations in the School of Art Museum collection by Charles Keene (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

The tendency to consult Crawhall’s albums for his commissions did not mean that the illustrator no ideas of his own. Reid explains that Keene carried a small bottle of self-manufactured ink attached to his jacket, and steel pens and sketchbook in his pocket to always be ready to record what caught his attention. He had a great talent to catch people’s expressions. These sketches would find their way into the pages of Punch, and the landscapes he studied so carefully during his holidays would be faithfully rendered in the background of his images.

Although Keene had been a wood engraver’s apprentice and was therefore well aware of the challenges to transfer an illustrator’s drawing onto the woodblock, he seemed to consider this issue very little when it came to his own designs. He had a preference for drawing on odd ‘bits of paper’, including old envelopes, and would sometimes make any imperfections of the paper or its texture part of the image. Apart from using pencil, he would work with inks and Chinese white and in different colours, and apply them with pens, brushes or even his fingers for great tonal effects. This mixture of techniques made it a nightmare for the engravers, who could only work in solid black lines on white paper, to achieve an equally quality result.

Throughout his career, Keene would be inspired by a wide variety of sources such as fellow illustrator Tenniel and the Pre-Raphaelites. Of the latter, he counted John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) among his friends. He was influenced and collected works by German painters and printmakers Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (1726-1801) and Adolph Menzel (1815-1905). Menzel specialised in history paintings and was devoted to depicting scenes naturalistically. Art historian Gert Schiff (1926-90) explains that Menzel was compelled to “draw whatever he saw”, which echoes Keene’s own motto “Draw a thing as you see it!”. The two artists began a friendly correspondence and exchanged examples of their work. Paul Goldman suggests that Menzel took out a subscription for Punch only because of Keene’s images. In 1901, an anonymous Times critic of the ‘Exhibition of Modern Illustration’, which included works by Keene, called Menzel even the “Father of Modern Illustration”. This seems to reinforce the idea that the English illustrator was inspired by his Prussian counterpart.

Despite of working for Punch for almost 40 years, Keene never achieved the huge popularity that John Leech had before him. He also illustrated for the periodical Once a Week and created images for popular authors such as Mrs Henry Wood (1814-1887) and George Meredith (1828-1909), which should have made him well-known to an even wider audience. Nevertheless, many fellow artists saw him as one of the finest draughtsmen of his time. His colleagues at Punch and others, such as American James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), admired his work. Degas owned about 215 wood engravings by Keene at the time of his death. Walter Sickert (1860-1942) went as far as to declare that “The Impressionist painters were great admirers and students of his drawings. The painting of trees in sunlight by Monet and Sisley is based on his drawings.”

Images for Evan Harrington by George Meredith, Once a Week vol. 2 & 3, 1860, in the School of Art collection (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Etching was a common interest he shared with Whistler, with whom he was good friends. The fellow artist even tried to persuade him to be a witness in his famous court case against writer and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). American printmaker Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) describes Keene as a “master” of etching. However, the illustrator did not regard printmaking as a career move or a means of gaining financial profit, although his prints won him a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. Keene didn’t even enter the etchings himself; it was Mrs Edwin Edwards, who also happened to do the actual printing of his designs, who submitted his work.

The Edwards were a wealthy couple; Edwards (1823-1879) himself was a painter and etcher. The three of them became intimate friends in the 1860s. When they first met in early 1863, Mrs Edwards wrote in her diary:” C. Keene seems full of pleasant fun and humour. Tells a story well.” Keene, always fond of giving his friends nicknames, affectionately named them ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’. The couple had contacts to artists across Europe, especially France. This might have also helped making Keene’s work known to people such as Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). The Edwards and the illustrator would spend their holidays together at Clifford Cottage, Southwold, in Keene’s beloved Suffolk.

Although Keene had a wide circle of friends, of which only a few are mentioned here, and enjoyed company, he never married. He had a very close bond with his family and had lived with his mother and sisters in the family home in Hammersmith, since he had quitted his lodgings in Bloomsbury in 1855. His sister Kate, who had modelled for him many times, died March 1881 and his mother only two months later at the beginning of May. In a letter he sent to a friend the same day, he writes: “I could not feel her pulse; she drew a few breaths calmly; another – she was gone! I can’t write any more just now, but my heart it lighter now she is released from pain.” He loved animals and had a little Dachshund that lived with him to the grand old age of seventeen. He described her as a “quiet, affectionate little animal, always sniffing about for mice and such small deer.”  According to Layard, the last drawing Keene made was that of her little, dead body in 1890. He also kept a jackdaw and a crow as pets at some point in his life and would even feed the rats in his studio in the Strand.

An advocate of exercise, the illustrator would walk longs distances from Hammersmith to his various studios: first the aforementioned place in The Strand, then in Clipstone Street (the old rooms of The Artists’ Society), Baker Street and after that, two places in Chelsea – first in Queen’s Road West (now Royal Hospital Road) and then in King’s Road. He gave up the last studio with a heavy heart in 1889 due to his declining health. Apart from a temporary break, when he mysteriously developed a disgust for tobacco, he had always been a heavy smoker, and eventually paid the price for that unhealthy habit. He also suffered from rheumatism and dyspepsia. The last two years leading to his death were marked by pain and a growing physical weakness. However, he continued to go out and visit friends as much as possible. When he was finally confined to his home, many friends, including Holman Hunt and Millais would see him and bring tasty food along for him. His old servant, Mary Ann Smith, was devoted to his care and he gratefully bequeathed an annual pension to her in his will. He died on the 4th January 1891. Layard writes that his last words, after noticing that it had snowed, were: “Oh what will the little birds do?”

Charles Samuel Keene was buried a week later at Hammersmith cemetery. The funeral was attended by most of his Punch colleagues and friends. On the same day, The Athenaeum published his obituary, in which they described him as “one of the most delightful companions, of the kindest spirit and most genial wit.” At one of their next ‘Morey Minstrels’ meetings in February, Layard relates that his companions sang a quiet requiem in his honour. The Art Journal called him “so rare an artist, who has unaffectedly held the mirror up to nature” in their March publication.   

Karen Westendorf (Curatorial & Technical Assistant)



For more images by Charles Samuel Keene in the School of Art collection, search here: 

Anon. ‘Exhibition of Modern Illustration’. The Times, 14 Jan 1901.

Buckler, William E. “Once a Week under Samuel Lucas, 1859-65.” PMLA 67.7 (1952): 924-941. JSTOR. Web. 24 Aug. 2022.

Chesson, Wilfrid Hugh, Pennell, Joseph. The Work of Charles Keene. Whitefriars Press for T. Fisher Unwin and Bradbury, Agnew & Co., 1897.

Gettmann, Royal A. “Serialization and Evan Harrington.” PMLA 64.5 (1949): 963-975. JSTOR. Web. 19 Aug. 2022.

Goldman, Paul. “The Artists’ Artist”: An Introduction to Charles Keene’s Work.

Houfe, Simon. Keene, Charles Samuel. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Houfe, Simon. The Work of Charles Samuel Keene. Scolar Press, 1995.

Layard, George Somes. The Life and Letters of Charles Keene.

Leary, Patrick. The Punch Brotherhood: Table Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London. The British Library, 2010.

Pimlott Baker, Anne. Read, Samuel. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Price, R. G. G. A History of Punch. Collins, 1957.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the 1860s: An Illustrated Survey of the Work of 58 Artists.

Schiff, Gert, Waetzoldt, Stephan. German Masters of the Nineteenth Century – Paintings and Drawings from the Federal Republic of Germany.

Spielman, M.H. The History of “Punch”.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s