Earlier this month we were delighted to receive into the Seven Stories Collection a fine set of signed Charles Keeping prints. These prints reproduce a selection of wonderfully dark illustrations made by Keeping for Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen's books, The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow. The prints were donated to Seven Stories by former school teacher and long-time supporter of Seven Stories, Nick Brown. Here Nick talks about how he came across the prints and the impact the work of Charles Keeping has had on him:

When I was training as a teacher in the early 70s, I came across The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen. This retelling of some of the Greek myths was radically different from the ones we usually used on teaching practice by authors such as Roger Lancelyn Green, Barbara Leone Picard or even Andre Lang. I found the stories compelling and used some of them in my teaching.

Detail of Hades Chariot from The God Beneath the Sea. Image © Charles Keeping estate

Whilst the book itself received a mixed critical reception, this was not the case with the illustrations which were almost universally praised and, I suspect, contributed to it being awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1970. In addition, Keeping received a Kate Greenaway Commendation- an award that is no longer given. Interestingly, though, the U.S. edition does not feature Keeping's illustrations and I wonder if they were thought too "strong" for American sensibilities.

Copies of the books

But it isn't  the stories that have stayed with me, it's Charles Keeping's amazing illustrations that have resonated over the years. I was stunned by Keeping's illustrations so much so that when a portfolio of his illustrations for both The God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow became available, I snapped it up. And they have remained with me ever since. I would take them out every so often and admire their power and violent beauty. I've enjoyed these prints for so many years that it seemed fitting to donate them to Seven Stories to add to their archive, where they could be viewed alongside the original Leon Garfield manuscripts.

Pages from Leon Garfield's notebooks for The Golden Shadow here at Seven Stories

On my visit to the Seven Stories Collection I was able to look through Leon Garfield's notebook that contain partial drafts of both novels. At this stage of writing, not surprisingly, there is no indication about illustrating them. It would be really interesting to find out when/how Keeping became a part of the process and how much freedom he had in deciding what to illustrate. But that is for another time.

Detail of punishment of Prometheus from The God Beneath the Sea. Image © Charles Keeping estate

It has to be remembered that whilst both books were promoted as suitable for older children,  one wonders if the illustrations are! Today, we see resonances of Keeping's work in that of Dave McKean (Coraline), Chris Riddell (The Graveyard Book) and Jim Kay (A Monster Calls). Keeping is crucial to our understanding of the development of post war children's book illustration and the illustrations for God Beneath the Sea and The Golden Shadow are an important part of this process.

Leon Garfield's notebooks for The Golden Shadow here at Seven Stories

Both books are lavishly illustrated. As in  most of Keeping's illustrative work, the illustrations are in black and white. They appear as half page and full page but also across a double page in a powerfully dynamic way. The illustrations don't simply accompany the text they propel us through the story. This  can be seen in his illustration of Hades' chariot in The God Beneath the Sea. And for a gruesome rendition of the punishment of Prometheus, we need go no further. Keeping's illustration of the dead Nemean lion is rather ambiguous.  After staring at it for a while it becomes less lionlike and more human. Or do I need an optician's appointment?

Dead Nemean lion from The Golden Shadow. Image © Charles Keeping estate

By Nick Brown

The Charles Keeping prints and the Leon Garfield collection are available to view by appointment at the Seven Stories Collections Department. To find out more about the Seven Stories Collection click here. To make an appointment to visit the Collection or to find out more about the collections featured in this post or other collections that we hold then click here to contact us.