Sunday, September 30, 2012

Charles Keeping Illustrates Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff and her illustrators have featured here before: strangely you might think, under the heading "Jamie Bell's Bottom" That was a post about her Eagle of the Ninth book and subsequent film. That book, and a number of others she wrote, was illustrated  by Walter Hodges. This one that I picked up the other day in Chichester is the story of a boy from a Bronze Age Tribe on what are now the South Downs, it is the story of his initiation into manhood in the tribe and his striving to win the warrior's scarlet cloth, hence the title. The illustrations are by Charles Keeping (1924-1988), about whom, for a change, Wikipedia appears to know quite a bit. He was an illustrator, lithographer and children's author in his own right. It was is work for a number of Sutcliff's novels - and she wrote a lot - that brought him to prominence. 

More interesting to me is his style. It is, whilst definitely his own, also part of a tradition of illustration from the mid-twentieth century that is particularly prevalent in children's books but which can be seen elsewhere too, which is inky, scribbly, scratchy and sketchy, and yet is still quite controlled and in which, even at the height of the 1950s/60s you can still see the influence of the black and white masters of the turn of the last century in the way that white space and black line are used. I am continually shocked that no-one has yet written the definitive study of this period in illustration and also that this style doesn't yet have a name...!

Illustration for children's books, older children's books, has more or less died a death now but this one shows just how sophisticated it could become with shaped illustrations becoming part of the page layout - not something to be seen in every illustrated book, even in the last century.


Anonymous said...

When I was a little boy there was a young adult novel in my elementary school's library that I was totally enthralled with. I'm not even sure I ever read it; I may have been so young (6? 7?) that the writing was over my head. What did draw me in, however, was the illustrations. I think this is the book!

All these years later, I definitely recall those pictures of the fight. Even though I was too young to understand why I was so drawn to the images of the scantily-clad boys, I still knew enough to be discrete about it, and probably even ashamed (which somehow made it all the more exciting). I don't think I could ever bring myself to check it out of the library; I just hid out in the stacks reveling in the strange, secret pleasure the book brought me. Is there another illustration of a pile of boys wrestling in there? I seem to remember at least two.

Anyway, thanks for posting. I've been enjoying your blog for a couple years, all the while wondering if one day the mystery book from my childhood would appear. I wonder how many other kids felt their first spark of "queerness" inspired by this?

A weird side note to this is that I never recalled this book being about Bronze Age Celts. I'm sure I didn't even know anything about the Celts at that time. I am currently polishing up my first attempt at a novel of my own--it largely revolves around two teenage boys who are reincarnated Celtic warriors.

Callum said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here and to tell your touching story about this book. I think we all have things (maybe books or pictures) from an ealy part of life in which we can locate some beginning of sexual awareness. A friend of mine once described this pre-sexual feeling as a kind of 'squirminess' which I thought was very clever and apposite. Certainly I can think of illustrations in books I came across at a very young age which, even now, recall that early sense of something beyond experience.

Of course, we shall be expecting a review copy of your novel to land on the desk here as soon as it is published!

So glad to be able to connect you to your memories...


Anonymous said...

"Squirminess..." I like that.

I would love to send you a review copy of the novel. Just don't expect it anytime soon, seeing as it's my first. I'm guessing this is going to take a while!

Hywel James said...

Charles Keeping was indeed a great illustrator and came from a time that, as you say, was rich in fine illustrators and artists, especially illustrators working on books for young people. Again, as you say, there seems to be no general history of this particular art. Alexandra Harris' "Romantic Moderns:English writers, artists and the imagination, from Virginia Woolf to John Piper",(2010), provides the background to the immediately preceding period, and touches on artists and illustrators who taught the Keeping generation and who influenced their subsequent graphic style to an extent. But I do not know of a general history of the period from, say, 1945 to 1980, during which so many wonderful illustrated books for children were published, especially by OUP.

Many thanks for your blog.

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