Wordless Books


Charles Keeping

Human settlements tend to form near rivers, as they provide easy access to water. This wordless book shows how centuries of human activity transform a pristine riverside landscape  into a busy built-up cityscape.

As each new generation uses the precious resource of the river to develop their lives, industries and businesses, we witness a succession of different buildings being erected, knocked down and rebuilt.

Endpaper from River by Charles Keeping

After endpapers of a night-time landscape, the title page shows a lush green and yellow image of the same, virtually untouched, landscape. A human couple can be seen in the foreground, a river in the middle ground and hills in the distance.

But change happens fast, and the initial spread introduces the first brick and wood constructions, all shown in much darker, more oppressive, shades of brown.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

Each time the artist uses the same viewpoint. The riverside landscape, drawn in fluid, undulating strokes, provides the backdrop to the ever-changing architecture, typically portrayed in rigid lines.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

As time moves on, taller buildings arrive and signs of industry appear. There are warehouses, carts, sacks of goods, and a statue of a person on a horse. Keeping loved to draw horses and was familiar with them from his childhood.

The buildings always dominate, but various different types of people and animals can also be seen. There are workers, businessmen, mums with prams, children playing, dogs chasing each other and birds looking on. The constructed environment hums with this activity of living creatures.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

These early buildings eventually decay and are replaced by grander ones with ornate columns and decorations. Signs of an early train track can be seen, as can steam engines and a Metropolitan Cattle Trough.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

When these buildings, too, collapse, Keeping uses deeper shades of red that almost make it feel as if the decaying structures are bleeding.

Charles Keeping (1924-1988), a mid-century British artist, was known both for his distinctive line drawings and his idiosyncratic use of colour, which is often highly atmospheric.

Here, Keeping uses colour to emphasise the contrast between the natural world and the man-made environment. Typically the former is shown in softer hues of green and yellow, while the human activity is portrayed in darker, more workmanlike shades of brown.

There are exceptions, though, such as the glorious multi-coloured facade (above) and, later on, a bright modern office block (see below).

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

At one point the view becomes that of a solid wall covered in a giant mural which resembles and echoes the natural landscape it is obscuring.

As more rebuilding goes on, we gradually we see the introduction of cars, vans, bicycles.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

Keeping also uses plenty of words within his illustrations – described as ‘intraiconic text’ by the academic Maria Nikolajeva. These bits of text help set each scene in its own era.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

Details of businesses can be read, or the names of shopkeepers; labels appear on statues and on the cattle trough.

Later on there are advertising hoardings and graffiti.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

Once, when a solid wall falls, the landscape is briefly revealed once more – before a gleaming office block rises up to cover it.

Yet the beauty of the natural world cannot be totally eclipsed, as the river, trees and hills can all be glimpsed through its many windows.

Time may pass, the message seems to be, but natures endures.

Spread from River by Charles Keeping

Charles Keeping produced many books of his own and also illustrated the works of others, including the complete works of Charles Dickens for the Folio Society. He won two Kate Greenaway Medals and was a runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1974.

See also Charles Keeping’s Inter-City.