The first thing that strikes one about Quentin Blake is that he may have emerged from one of his drawings: the sprig-ly grey hair, the wondrous and genial persona, the signature spotless white shoes and a mild gentleness that flows as much from the pen and quill as it does from his words and manners. Having animated countless childhoods (and post-childhoods) through his illustrations for children’s storybooks, Blake’s recent projects have taken his lively drawings on to murals (or ‘big illustrations’ as he calls them) in hospitals, museums, theatres, on educational buses as far away as Ecuador, and in various other settings e.g. on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, Blake did a series of illustrations that were used to produce various kinds of memorabilia including postcards, calendars, mugs, magnets, and also projected on to King’s College and the Senate House buildings during the commemorative ceremonies. TCS got an opportunity to chat with him about these ‘Beyond the Page’ projects, as his latest compilation of these efforts is called, and also to reminisce on a prolific, unconventional artistic career.
Blake recalls his association with Cambridge fondly where he studied English Literature as an undergraduate at Downing College. He is currently the patron of the Blake Society at the college and continues to visit often to renew his association with the university. However when asked to comment on the inspiration behind his artistic style and whether any Cambridge dons, architecture or traditions influenced him, he denies any explicit effect, saying that reading a lot of books and meeting intelligent people in the university mattered a great deal but Cambridge on the whole did not play a formative role in determining his artistic skills or career. The reading was useful in the sense that not all artists like to read, Blake says, but aside from that he refers to his illustrations for magazines like Punch during his undergraduate years as the germinating point of his career. In fact it was his editor who told him that his rough sketches were better than the finished ones, and this comment helped Blake develop his trademark squiggly drawings that convey a spontaneity which reaches up and tickles the reader. ‘Kids like them, I suppose, precisely because of that… because it feels like something is happening now, and hasn’t finished yet’ Blake says.
This characteristic ‘messy’ style of drawing lends the fluidity and ease with which Blake has completed commissioned ‘big illustrations’ in fairly unconventional settings. His ‘informal panorama’, part of the 800 years celebrations at the university, included depictions of many Cambridge luminaries including Newton, Milton, Darwin, Franklin, Crick and Watson among others, and he mentions the flat country and willow trees of Cambridge as providing the perfect setting for these drawings. After some of his ‘big drawings’ for a maternity hospital in France were shown at Clare Hall, Blake was approached by Mary Archer from the NHS Trust to make similar drawings for Addenbrooke’s Hospital, a project duly completed. His hospital drawings convey the same sense of movement and friendly reassurance, with mothers swimming underwater with their newborn babies, elderly patients engaged in creative pursuits to banish the gloom of an old people’s home, and folks in a mental health unit jumping off trees to be caught by people underneath to convey the sunlit conviction that things are going to be okay. These drawings also retain the characteristic Blake scrawl, and Blake says that while there are lots of rough sketches and wastage in the drawing process, he does not as a rule research the animals or plants he draws, preferring to invent his subjects.
Perhaps Blake will be best remembered for his illustrations in the Roald Dahl books and when asked to comment on this partnership, he calls it a ‘good double-act’ which worked well because Blake had already developed his artistic style and sensibilities by then, otherwise he says it was possible to feel overpowered by Dahl. Like his partner, Blake has also made drawings for adult audiences like the ones in hospitals as well as a series of female nudes for an exhibition in Paris in Spring 2014. He has also illustrated about a dozen books for the Folio Society, most recently a limited edition of Voltaire’s Candide and Fifty Fables of La Fontaine, a version also designed for adults, not children.
Talking of the drawing process itself, Blake says that he prefers to draw spontaneously, often using his roughs to serve as a light tracing background for the final sketch. ‘Some artists are amazed by how quickly time passes when they are drawing… seven hours can pass without them realizing it, but I have the opposite problem I think’ Blake jokes ‘I can start a drawing at 10 and finish it and say well, it’s only ten past!’ He says that this does not undermine the value of artistic training though, recalling his early years when nervousness would make his lines tight but gradually he stopped worrying and the drawing became innate and flowed like handwriting. Most recently he has started using the quill and other old-fashioned implements for drawing and then converting his small illustrations into huge installations through digital printing- it may have been a giant, unconventional leap for some, but for Blake it was easy to ask his brimming drawings ‘to get off the page and on to walls.’ He seems to share his characters’ fluid ease and with an affectionate twinkle in his eyes, Blake, 80, takes leave, gently ambling off sans stiffness or ceremony.