Inside House of Illustration’s dedicated gallery to Quentin Blake
- Credit: Quentin Blake
Rare and unseen gems by the iconic illustrator are displayed throughout the year.
His scrawled illustrations are etched in the minds of many and have visualised the narratives of some of our most beloved books. But although Quentin Blake is best-known for his drawings for Roald Dahl’s iconic children’s fiction, his work is actually far more extensive than most people realise. At House of Illustration by King’s Cross station, rare and unseen gems from his collection are displayed throughout the year.
“It’s really difficult to summarise his style; there’s always warmth, but also humour and mischief which is what I think is what draws people in,” says Olivia Ahmad, a curator at House of Illustration who works closely with Blake, delving through his archives to put together exhibitions in his dedicated gallery. “Character is the most important thing. A lot of his work is about the gesture of the body and how that communicates things.”
Blake founded House of Illustration in 2014 to celebrate the art of illustration in all its forms. Exhibitions run all year round showcasing work from a plethora of artists as well as Blake himself, changed up by the gallery’s curators periodically. “He realised there was no public art gallery for illustrators and thought that’s something that needed to change, basically. So he came up with this idea for House of Illustration: a public gallery for historic and contemporary illustration, the first of its kind in the UK,” Ahmad explains.
Currently, Blake’s gallery displays his illustrations for the French literary classic Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, presented to coincide with The Folio Society’s publication of a new edition. Cyrano de Bergerac’s 17th century tale of space travel is a very early example of science fiction told in the style of a traditional comic tale. The long-nosed protagonist travels to the Moon, is imprisoned on Earth and then escapes to the Sun where he is put on trial by its resident birds. “The book throws up a lot of strange visuals,” Ahmad says, pointing out a drawing of a large ostrich-like bird mounted by a human, with peacocks hovering alongside in the background. “It’s different to much of his other work which focuses on children’s or contemporary books.”
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Quentin Blake first illustrated the text for The Folio Society in 1991, revisiting the book and adding more illustrations for a new edition released this year. The exhibition, which runs until the end of September, displays a selection of Blake’s vivid drawings for both editions. The texts have been loved by Blake for over 40 years. With a ‘nasally-gifted’ main character, makeshift machines used for flying, wildly gesticulating nude giants and a kingdom of birds, Cyrano’s book seems a good fit for Blake’s style.
Of the exhibition, Quentin Blake says: “What attracted me first of all to Cyrano de Bergerac’s book was the multiplicity of things to draw – of unexpected things to draw. But that is the nature of the book itself. It is a precursor to Gulliver’s Travels, but where Jonathan Swift is bent on satire Cyrano is interested is everything and questions everything. In the mid-17th century he describes the audio book, wonders if plants have feelings, and is rocket-launched to the Moon. Everyone should know him.”
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Later this year, House of Illustration is putting on an exhibition that diverges even further from Blake’s work for children’s books than a 17th century tale of science fiction. 100 unseen pieces of figurative art made between 1950 and the present day will be displayed, giving insight into his lesser-known creative practices beyond illustration.
“Quentin is known for his illustrations but there’s an aspect of his work that’s almost completely unknown and that’s his figurative art, oil paintings and printmaking,” Ahmad says. “It’s work that he felt compelled to do but wasn’t linked to a particular project. It’s interesting because he’s really well known for this black line that has a particular movement about it, but we’re going to be showing his oil paintings where you get these broad strokes of bright colour.”
Blake’s first illustration was published when he was 16 and still a schoolboy. Now at age 85, he is still at his drawing board every day and publishing books every year. “He keeps everything so there’s well over 35,000 pieces. We work together closely, he has an amazing recall of his work and can remember which picture was done when and all the information about it,” Ahmad says.
“He often says that working in illustration is like being the director of a play. You have the characters, you have to think about the costumes, where they are and their movements.
And that’s how he constructs his images, it’s like a play – it’s all happening.”