Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Keene, Charles Samuel

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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 Aug. 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 Jan. 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. Perhaps 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. With the concurrence of Keene's representatives, Mr. G. S. Layard issued Keene's Life and Letters in 1892. The volume is illustrated by many facsimile examples of his work, and contains a considerable selection from his correspondence.]

A. D.