Keith Henderson was born in Kensington, London, on 16 April 1883, one of the three children of George MacDonald Henderson, barrister-at-law, and Constance Helen (née Keith). His father worked at Lincoln’s Inn, and Keith grew up between 18 Kensington Gardens Square, in London, and Campfield House, near Glassel, in Aberdeenshire. He was educated at Orme Square School and Marlborough College, and then studied art, against his father’s wishes, at the Slade School of Art and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris. While in Paris, he shared a studio with Maxwell Armfield, Norman Wilkinson ‘of Four Oaks’ and the French sculptor, Gaston Lachaise.
He and Wilkinson collaborated on his first work as a book illustrator, an elegant edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation of The Romaunt of the Rose (1908).
Working in London as a portrait painter early in his career, he exhibited at various venues, and was elected to the membership of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1912.
During the First World War, Henderson served in the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, rising to the rank of Captain. While on the Western Front, he produced a number of remarkable pastels, which his friend, Ernest Gowers, suggested that he publish with letters that he had written to his fiancée, Helen Knox-Shaw, as an accompanying text. The volume, entitled Letters to Helen: Impressions of an Artist on the Western Front, appeared in 1917, the year in which he and Helen married at St Martin-in-the-Fields. The pastels, some of the most beautiful images of war ever made, were Henderson’s last illustrations in his earlier style. He was awarded an OBE for his reconnaissance during the war.
From the 1920s, Henderson worked increasingly as an illustrator and poster artist, and made an extensive use of scraperboard. Many of his illustrations reflect his sympathy for the landscapes, wildlife and cultures of non-European civilizations, which he developed through wide travels and study in the British Museum and at London Zoo.
The two-volume edition of W H Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico (1922), which is represented here, is his greatest published achievement of this period, matched only in invention by the unpublished drawings for his own project, ‘Creatures and Personages: A Book of Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek Mythologies’. His other publications between the wars include several collaborations with his brother-in-law, Eric Rücker Eddison, who was a friend of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, and wrote similar kinds of fantasy.
As an advertising artist, Henderson worked especially for the Empire Marketing Board, which sent him to paint in Cyprus for a year and a half. The results were exhibited in 1929, at his dealer, the Beaux Arts Gallery, in Bruton Street. Other paintings were shown at the leading exhibiting societies of which he became a member: the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1930, RWS 1937), the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils (1934) and the Royal Scottish Society of Water-Colour Painters (1936).
Despite the wide exposure of his work in London, Henderson lived mainly in Scotland, sharing his time between Eoligarry, on the Isle of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides, and Achriabhach, Glen Nevis, by Fort William, Inverness-shire. In 1942, he and Helen moved north from Achriabhach to Chorriechoille, Spean Bridge.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Henderson became one of the first two painters to be appointed as Official War Artist to the Air Ministry, the other being Paul Nash. Sent to RAF bases in Scotland, he was frustrated to find that William Rothenstein had already made many portrait drawings at the same bases, even though not contracted to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. So Henderson instead concentrated on ground crew, aircraft hangars, repair shops and runways, and among other paintings produced An Improvised Test of an Under-carriage. This proved so controversial with the Air Ministry that his contract was not extended. Nevertheless, it was included in the first of the WAAC ‘Britain at War’ exhibitions, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May 1941, and he continued to paint military subjects throughout the war.
Following the end of the war, Henderson continued to paint, continuing to refine his style, so that, by the 1970s, he was painting figure groups in minimal settings, often against all-white backgrounds. On the death of his wife in 1971, he sold their Scottish home, and most of their pictures, and moved to London. He died in hospital in South Africa, on 24 February 1982, following an accident in Cape Province. He was 98 years old. In 1970, he had published Till 21, a memoir of his earliest years.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Imperial War Museums and the Royal Air Force Museum; Manchester Art Gallery and Worthing Museum and Art Gallery; Newport Museum and Art Gallery; and Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and Perth Museum and Art Gallery.