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A Curator's insight into 'Quentin Blake: Inside Stories'

06 November 2015

We spoke to Olivia Ahmad, Curator at House of Illustration, about the ‘Quentin Blake: Inside Stories’ exhibition which is currently on show from House of Illustration at The Lightbox.

Quentin Blake is undoubtedly Britain’s best-loved illustrator. His first illustration was printed in Punch magazine in 1949 when he was still a schoolboy and since then he has written and illustrated hundreds of books, from picture books to literary classics. It is this area of his work that is explored in House of Illustration’s Quentin Blake: Inside Stories exhibition, currently on show at The Lightbox.

The archive of Blake’s original illustrations, sketches and manuscripts is held in London. It comprises thousands of pieces from a career spanning more than 60 years. Blake himself has selected artwork from the archive shelves for Inside Stories. Accompanied by his commentary, the previously unseen drawings offer a fascinating insight into Blake’s working process and the incredible versatility of his pen.

Blake’s images are so vibrant that they seem like they were done in an instant and spontaneous gesture. However, as the exhibition reveals, each of his book illustrations is the result of a careful process. When Blake sits at his desk in London he asks himself a series of questions, first of all; which moments in the story are most important? In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, there is a passage where terrifying headteacher Miss Trunchbull calls Bruce Bogtrotter onto the school stage to punish him for eating a slice of cake. We know from the text that Miss Trunchbull eventually smashes a plate on poor Bruce’s head, but Blake’s illustration shows the plate is hovering ominously above the boy, adding to the tension of the scene.

Blake makes several pencil sketches before settling on the final composition of an illustration. He never draws from life; all his images are taken from his imagination and worked out on paper. In the exhibition, rough drawings and final illustrations from Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen are shown alongside each other.

Blake’s illustrations are instantly recognisable as his, almost like handwriting. However the exhibition shows illustrations from several books, and it is clear that he uses materials in very different ways to create distinct moods. Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World for example are done with loose ink washes and a very fine ink line; the story takes place in a rural country setting, and Blake wanted to create the sense that the drawings had been done quickly ‘on location’. His illustrations for another Dahl book The Twits, also uses ink line, but in a very different way. Blake used a square pen to give a thick ‘boxy’ line which suits the harsh character of Mr. and Mrs. Twit.

‘Quentin Blake: Inside Stories’ offers many new perspectives on the work of Britain’s most celebrated illustrator. I am looking forward to talking more about Blake’s techniques at The Lightbox on 17 November 2015.

Olivia will be joining us at The Lightbox on Tuesday 17 November at 1.00pm for a talk to explore the exhibition and give a revealing insight into Quentin Blake’s working practice. You can book a place on this fascinating talk on the link below. 'Quentin Blake: Inside Stories' is on show at The Lightbox until 17 January.

Book onto Olivia's talk 'Quentin Blake: Illustrating the books we love'

Find out more about 'Quentin Blake: Inside Stories'

Image credits: Illustrations © Quentin Blake

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