Charles Samuel Keene (1823-1891) Becoming associated, from the 1860s, with his Punch cartoons of urban street life, Charles Keene developed a great reputation as a draughtsman, and was revered by many of his contemporaries.
Charles Keene was born in Duvals Lane, Hornsey, Middlesex, on 10 August 1823, one of the sons of the solicitor, Samuel Keene, and his wife, Mary (née Sparrow). He spent his childhood in London and Ipswich, where he was educated at the local grammar school. He then spent some time in the offices of both his late father, at Furnivall’s Inn, London, and the architect, William Pilkington of Scotland Yard. However, finding neither congenial, he entered a five-year apprenticeship with the wood-engravers, the Whymper Brothers. In addition, he was ‘a compulsive attender’ of the Clipstone Academy, from 1848 into the 1860s.
Keene illustrated books from 1847 and contributed to The Illustrated London News, but it was only in December 1851, when he made his first, unsigned drawing for Punch, that he found the ideal outlet for his talents.
It was a connection that lasted until the day of his death and, from the time he began to use his monogram in 1854, it brought him great celebrity. Keene became a member of the Punch ‘Table’ in 1860 and, on the death of John Leech in 1864, took on the role of chief social commentator; he relied principally on urban street life, thus complementing the drawings of George Du Maurier, who was employed from the same year. He greatly inspired Phil May, who was in some ways his successor, but Keene was less intrinsically funny and made much use of comic situations supplied by his friend Joseph Crawhall senior. His influence lay for the most part in the areas of style and technique and, as an admirer and correspondent of Adolf Menzel, he did much to introduce the German tradition of draughtsmanship into Britain. Praised by the French, and working late in life in a style reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec, he has been described with some justification as ‘the English Daumier’ (Gordon Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914, New York: Pierrepoint Morgan Library, 1976, page 118). Whistler went further and called him ‘the greatest English artist since Hogarth’ (quoted in Joseph Pennell, Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsmen, New York: Macmillan, 1920, page 236).
Through most of his career, Keene lived ‘in various dilapidated rooms and lodgings’ in London (Houfe, ODNB). However, he also took a cottage in Witley, Surrey, for some years, and spent long holidays in Suffolk. Two months after his death on 4 January 1891, at his final home at 112 Hammersmith Road, London, the Fine Art Society mounted a memorial exhibition.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge).
Simon Houfe, Charles Keene. ‘the Artist’s Artist’ 1823-1891, London: Christie’s/ Punch, 1991; Simon Houfe, ‘Keene, Charles Samuel (1823-1891)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 31, pages 29-32; Simon Houfe, The Work of Charles Samuel Keene, London: Scolar Press, 1995; Derek Hudson, Charles Keene, London: Pleiades Books, 1947; Lewis Johnson, ‘Keene, Charles (Samuel) (b London, 10 Aug 1823; d London, 4 Jan 1891)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 17, page 877