Quentin Blake on his
Anthology of Readers
Best known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books — including Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory amongst others — Quentin Blake’s latest exhibition, Anthology of Readers, turns his eye to book-lovers. Held at Shapero Rare Books, their very own Oliver Bayliss had the opportunity to speak with Quentin Blake ahead of the exhibition’s reveal. Read the full interview below.
What is it about reading and the act of reading that inspired you to create the works for this show?
Reading is interesting to me, and as it happens, it is the only thing in which I have a qualification; a Cambridge degree. But, of course, what is really interesting are the postures that readers get into when they have a book in their hand.
Absolutely! Some of us become almost cat-like when we have a book in hand. What was it that attracted you to literary illustrations?
I started off as an illustrator working for magazines like Punch and The Spectator, but what I really wanted was to get a sequence of my own illustrations between two covers, and to be able to follow a narrative through. I am still fascinated by the task which offers such a variety of opportunities, with David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress on the one hand, and Voltaire and La Fontaine on the other.
Blake was named the first Children’s Laureate, and in 2013 he received a knighthood for ‘services to illustration’. He has won numerous awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration and the Whitbread Award. He is known for his collaboration with writers such as Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen, John Yeoman and, most famously, Roald Dahl. He has also illustrated classic books, including A Christmas Carol and Candide and created much-loved characters of his own, including Mister Magnolia and Mrs Armitage.
Since the 1990s, Blake has also enjoyed a career as exhibition curator, curating shows in, to name a few, the National Gallery, the British Library and the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris. In the last few years, he has begun to make larger-scale work for hospitals and healthcare settings in the UK and France where his work can be seen in wards and public spaces. Most recently he has completed a scheme for the whole of a new maternity hospital in Angers.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I have always wanted to be an artist. But after Cambridge I actually trained to be an English teacher – I think some sort of education informs a lot of what I do.
Yes, I can imagine that would be the case, especially in your children illustrations. I’ve noticed that birds seem to crop up a lot in your work, especially in your upcoming exhibition with us (particular favourites of mine are the mighty orange bird leaping out of a book, and the reader in the rain beneath a tree of squawking birds!). What is it that attracts you to birds?
I am not really quite sure why I am so enthusiastic about birds. It must be partly because they are like us, on two legs and can look round, but it is also a great advantage that they can fly so they can be separated from their background and can appear anywhere on the page that suits you.
The artworks in Shapero’s exhibition are in various formats and are executed in the artist’s trademark style, which Daily Telegraph writer Melanie McDonagh described as ‘anarchic, moral, infinitely subversive, sometimes vicious, socially acute [and] sparse.’
Prints of four of the original artworks, each in a limited edition of 25, will also be available, and to mark the exhibition, Shapero has produced a fully-illustrated book featuring an introduction by Sir Quentin’s friend, the historian Simon Sharma. Limited to 100 copies, it will also include a print signed by the artist himself.
The work you did with Roald Dahl is a feature of so many people’s childhoods, and I’m always struck by your vivid illustrations, especially on the dust-jackets. Do you have a favourite book of his that you worked on together?
It is hard to have one favourite although The BFG is very sympathetic and I think it may have been Roald’s favourite book, but of course, it is also a pleasure to draw people as dirty and spiky as The Twits. Danny the Champion of the World offers a much more naturalistic atmosphere so the pictures had to look almost as if they were drawn from life.
Ah, The Twits! A personal childhood favourite of mine – they were hilariously cantankerous! So, how did you and Dahl meet, and what was it like working with him?
We were put together by our editor, Tom Maschler, at Jonathan Cape for The Enormous Crocodile. Our first meetings were at the publishers and relatively formal. But when we got on to The BFG, I started going down to Great Missenden and having dinner with the family where I would probably show some of my ideas about the characters and get Roald’s comments.
Yet another childhood favourite. Going back to you, how would you describe your artistic style and has it changed at all over the years?
I stood up to draw for forty years. Now I sit down.
Is there any advice you would give to budding young artists and illustrators?
Draw all the time.
Finally, as I work in books I have to ask, do you have a favourite book or author?
Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Cyrano de Bergerac. When you mention his name people tend to think of the play by Edmund Rostand, but Cyrano is a fascinating writer. The Voyages anticipates Gulliver’s Travels: not merely satirical but questioning ideas and assumptions of all kinds.
Interview by Oliver Bayliss.
Anthology of Readers is on view from November 29 – December 21, 2019 at Mayfair Gallery, Shapero Rare Books. It features sixty original pen, ink & watercolour drawings. For more information, visit Shapero’s Rare Book website here.
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