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Quentin Blake at 90: celebrating the joy and magic of the illustrator of Matilda, The BFG and beyond

An ilustration of a giant man with huge ears peering at a little girl in the palm of his hand.
Blake’s cover image from The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl. Quentin Blake/Alamy

The expression “national treasure” could have been invented for Sir Quentin Blake who celebrates his 90th birthday on December 16 – and we might also celebrate his considerable impact on the status and understanding of the art of illustration.

This is not just based on his prolific creative output, spanning a staggering eight decades (so far), but also through his tireless work in promoting and preserving our rich graphic arts heritage in the UK.

This heritage has not always been as fully recognised within the UK as it might have been. One of Blake’s heroes, Ronald Searle (creator of the St Trinian’s cartoons), moved to France in the 1960s, at the height of his fame. Although this was primarily due to personal circumstances, he had also become increasingly weary of the British tendency to box visual artists as either “commercial” or “fine”.

Sir Quentin Blake sitting at a table with his hands clasped.
Sir Quentin Blake. PA / Alamy

Happily, in the last 20 years here in the UK we have at last begun to see a breaking down of these barriers and prejudices in our cultural institutions with more exhibits showcasing illustration. The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of Sir Quentin’s work in 2004, having previously featured the drawings of EH Shepard, the man who brought to life AA Milne’s funny little bear, Winnie the Pooh.

A new museum in his name opened in 2016 in Pinner, celebrating the whimsical illustrations of the artist Heath Robinson. And in 2017 the V&A museum staged the hugely popular exhibition, Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic. Currently nearing the end of its run (closing in January 2023), Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature is the latest V&A blockbuster to respond to growing public interest in the work of our illustrators and their methods and processes.

Not a typical start

Blake’s particular route into illustration was not a typical one. At Sidcup Grammar School in the late 1940s, he developed a keen interest in drawing. But his love of literature won through and rather than heading for art school, he took a place at Downing College, Cambridge, where he read English from 1953 to 1956.

The Quentin Blake illustrated cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Quentin Blake /SJBooks/Alamy

He had been submitting cartoons to magazines such as Punch since his mid-teens and before the end of the 1940s had begun to have drawings published regularly. At Cambridge, he inevitably became involved with the student magazine, Granta, both as regular contributor of cartoons and drawings, and as occasional art editor.

A briefly held post at the French Lycée in London convinced him of the dangers of becoming trapped in teaching and he decided to set about making a go of it as an illustrator. Conscious of having had no formal training, Blake enrolled for life drawing classes at Chelsea School of Art with painter and illustrator Brian Robb, whose work he admired and with whom he would later work at the Royal College of Art.

Commissions for Punch continued to roll in and when the magazine decided in the late 1950s to discard its iconic 1849 Richard Doyle engraving in favour of a freshly commissioned full-colour cover each week, Blake became a regular cover artist, alongside many of his graphic heroes, including Searle and André François.

The commissions enabled him to experiment with more painterly approaches, while still incorporating his increasingly characteristic line, which was also making regular appearances in the Spectator magazine. It was not until 1960 that Blake made his first foray into book illustration.

Anarchy and chaos

Finding one-off drawings increasingly unfulfilling but having no idea how to enter the world of sequential book illustration, he asked his friend John Yeoman to write a book for him. The resulting A Drink of Water was published by Faber that year, the first of many collaborations between the two and the first of somewhere in the region of 500 books illustrated – and often written – by Blake.

The Quentin-Blake illustrated cover of The Witches.
Quentin Blake / SJBooks / Alamy

Of his many creative partnerships, perhaps that with Roald Dahl is the most celebrated, beginning with The Enormous Crocodile in 1978 and flourishing throughout the 1980s. The hugely successful BFG and Matilda are enduring examples of writer and artist in perfect harmony.

His distinctive visual vocabulary, while playful and animated, is somehow able to apply itself equally successfully to the lyrical and the tragic, as evidenced in books such as his own The Green Ship and The Sad Book with Michael Rosen.

When asked how he achieves so much movement in his characters, Blake has revealed that he often finds himself physically acting out their contortions and gestures as he draws them in the privacy of his studio. His childlike joy in the anarchy and chaos that so often emerges on the pages of his books continues to speak to and delight generations of children.

From his studio overlooking a Kensington square, he continues to draw obsessively, daily. In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, he has taken time to make purely speculative, expressive work.

Birds and fish feature strongly, along with monumental, often dark, human heads. Sometimes all three merge into one. Many of these were shown in a joint exhibition with lifelong friend Linda Kitson in November this year, and have been published in Quentin Blake: A Year of Drawings.

Somehow, alongside all this productivity, Sir Quentin has found time and energy to oversee the evolution of The Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration at its historic New River Head site in Clerkenwell, London. When it opens fully in 2024, we will at last have a national public museum and gallery devoted to the art of illustration. Or as the gallery puts it, “the art that we experience in our everyday lives”.

So happy birthday Sir Quentin Blake – and thank you.

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