writer/illustrator Charles Keeping: Joseph’s Yard

Charles Keeping was a powerful force in my childhood. I was scared and fascinated by his books . The drawings burn on the page, and the stories cut into your heart. I was deeply influenced by his drawing style – that muscular scrawl with ink and wash. In this post I want to share one particular book: “Joseph’s Yard” which I grew up knowing as “Josef se plant”, in its Afrikaans version.

I had a hard time choosing which images to scan as each page is perfect.

The story is about a little boy called Joseph, who lives in a city. His backyard is filled with scrap metal and concrete, and he is very lonely. One day he hears a rag and bone man shouting in the street, and he exchanges the rubbish from the yard for a little seedling plant.

As the text says on this page, Joseph took the plant into his yard and loosened one of the stones. He plants it, and to his amazement it grows and produces a flower:

“And because he loved it so much, he picked it”. The flower is lovely, but it dies. Joseph is devastated as he realises that he killed the thing he loved.

“Joseph is alone in his yard again. The wind blows, and the snow covers everything”. The plant grows again, and this time he leaves it alone, letting it grow big and produce many flowers. Insects are attracted by the flowers. Birds come to eat the insects. Cats come to hunt the birds.

Joseph is scared that they will harm his plant so he chases them away. Then he covers the plant with his coat to protect it.

But of course, without sun or air, the plant dies. Joseph is once again devastated and realises that just like he killed the flower the first time through wanting to posess it, he has killed the plant by refusing to share it. The seasons change, it rains, and the sun shines. As time passes, the plant recovers and starts growing again. But Joseph leaves it alone.

“Finally it grows to cover the entire backyard. Insects come to sit on the flowers. Birds come to sit in the branches, and cats come to lie in its the cool shade. And Joseph is happy.”

I have left out many of the drawings, all so beautiful. Apparently Charles Keeping based this book on his own experience as a child growing up in a city with no garden. His house was next to the stables for the city’s cart horses, and he always peeped through the fence at these huge animals. In future posts, I hope to write about some of his other books which contain his drawings of horses. And such horses!

Charles Keeping died in 1988. His wife keeps a lovely website of his work, and you can visit the Charles Keeping museum in London.

Josef se plant

Joseph's Flower
Keeping's Birds

Keeping's Cat

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Masha » Blog Archive » A Darker Keeping: The Highwayman
  2. Mignon
    Oct 22, 2008 @ 08:19:21

    People should read this.

  3. Christopher Sharville
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 17:33:13

    Hi Masha, I spotted your piece about Charles Keeping and thought you would be interested to know about the Keeping Gallery in South London. I too am a lover of Charles Keeping’s work. I have been collecting the books for many years. I have recently been helping Renate Keeping promote the gallery using a blog and an email newsletter. If you would like to receive the newsletter please let me know.

    I first discovered these powerful illustrations whilst reading ‘Alfie and the Ferryman to my children. It was an old copy I had found at a jumble sale. I was totally taken with the strength of the images and have been a fan ever since.

    Kind regards, Chris

  4. mashadutoit
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:28:50

    Hi Chris I have come across references to the Keeping Gallery – maybe one day I will have a chance to visit it. It looks like a very special place. I grew up with several of his books and he has had a deep influence on my own drawing style. I would love to receive the newsletter – I’m going to visit the blog now 🙂

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