“The essence of drawing is in imagining what you are drawing.” Quentin Blake
For anyone of a certain age, the name Quentin Blake is inextricably associated with Roald Dahl. His fun, expressive caricatures are as memorable as Dahl’s evocative titles. In this very special exhibition, the man behind the illustrations opens the doors to his studio and to his mind.
When you enter, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into an adventure playground. The illusion is fleeting, yet strong, as the walls are covered in a floor-to-ceiling mural. Above what appears to be a large impression of Blake’s studio is an array of characters, bright and colourful, laced across the upper reaches of the walls. Wonderfully indulging for adults and children alike, this immediately draws you into the intimate world of the illustrator.
The display of Blake’s own implements – fountain pens, ink pots and watercolour palettes from his studio – awakens the viewer’s senses. You can almost smell the earthy pigment of the watercolour and hear the scratch of the fountain pen on the paper. Along with the mural, this invites you in – a symbolic welcome mat – and on the other side is a house of treasures.
One of the most intriguing and delightful things about this exhibition is the discovery that Blake is more than just Roald Dahl’s illustrator. The instantly recognisable stalwarts of children’s literature, such as the BFG and the Twits, feature among many lesser known figures, all of which are equally enchanting. Illustrations from Blake’s own publication The Dancing Frog depict a charming creature, whose comical poses convey the multi-layered dynamism of creative illustration. He indicates he chose the frog as a way of differentiating between ‘drawing’ and ‘illustration’ – between what is real and what is fantasy. Incidentally, the blurring of the lines between them is seamless, with the dancing frog representative of a coping mechanism for grief, which is all too real.
If it’s something different you’re looking for, then Blake’s illustrations for the eighteenth-century French satire Candide by Voltaire (deluxe edition published by The Folio Society, 2011) doesn’t disappoint. It is, for the most part, impossible not to smile at a Blake illustration, yet the mood is distinctly sombre in many of these offerings. The novella portrays the protagonist’s journey through the hardships of life, which is mirrored in many of Blake’s drawings. His use of colour (or lack thereof) is deliberate; bright reds for blood and demure, neutral tones for the secretive and the enigmatic scenes. Likewise with his work for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – the juxtaposition of colour and darker black and white images, highlighting the character’s mood, is a thought-provoking reinforcement of the function of the story. If you look upon them as ‘real’ images, you find that they tell the story as powerfully as through the words themselves.
As a result of Blake’s choice to share never-before-seen blueprints alongside some of his illustrations, this exhibition acts as a gateway to the opening of young people’s imaginations. Blake is shown to be just like every one of us who has ever picked up a pen, pencil, or paintbrush and stared at a blank canvas. He has made mistakes, changed his mind, and redone his work, all of which proves he is an advocate for creativity and accomplishment. Sharing work so personal with the general public is a testament to his confidence and desire to inspire the next generation.
This exhibition may be small, but it is this intimacy that is the key to its success. You quite literally are invited into a ‘house of illustration’ like an old, long-lost friend. So, come in, take a look around and marvel at seeing originals of well-known characters, as well as discovering that there is a depth and versatility to Blake as an artist that you may not have known existed.
Hurry, Inside Stories is showing until the 2nd November at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, London. Visit houseofillustration.org.uk/whats-on/whats-on/quentin-blake-inside-stories for further information.