Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration.
Located somewhat improbably behind King’s Cross St. Pancras, the thrumming London tube and train stations, is the cheery House of Illustration, which opened in early July. The path leading to it is lined with illustrated panels, a showcase of the visual treasures to come: advertisements and poster art, medical and botanical sketches, children’s books and fashion illustrations. The center’s present exhibition, “Inside Stories,” features original work by the beloved illustrator Quentin Blake, one of the House’s trustees and now an octogenarian, whose drawings have enchanted young readers for nearly half a century.
Blake is perhaps best known for his work with Roald Dahl, but no matter who he’s collaborating with, his illustrations retain a buoyant, often impish air. His first drawings were published in the magazine Punch when he was still in high school. He began illustrating children’s books in 1960, and taught for more than twenty years at the Royal College of Art. Since the nineties, he’s worked as exhibition curator, and has more recently created larger-scale works for health care wards and communal spaces.
Claudia Zeff, a publishing industry art director who has spent twenty years designing book jackets, curated “Inside Stories.” Zeff’s collaborative process with Blake was already comfortable—the two have worked together for more than a decade. The ideas for the exhibition “evolved quite gradually,” Zeff said. “Quentin came up with the idea of using the story behind the books as the theme … and expressed the different approaches/techniques he uses to illustrate to different types of narrative.”
The three-room exhibition shows Blake’s creations in progressive stages of completion—first roughs, storyboards, and finished work—to demonstrate how ideas evolved in a medley of pencils, inks, watercolors, and pastels. The last gallery is wholly dedicated to the manuscript for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, which delves into the author’s life after the death of his eighteen-year-old son, Eddie. The book is a plainspoken, heartbreaking attempt to deal with grief. “Really, I’m being sad but pretending I’m happy,” Rosen writes. “Sometimes sad is very big. It’s everywhere. All over me.”
Between the colorful introductory gallery and the tender finish are visual snippets of nine sets of illustrations. As Simon Schama, extolling Quentin Blake’s “perfectly economical stroke” in his June 2014 piece for the Financial Times, noted, “his paintings and drawings at their strongest are not just auxiliaries of a text but integral to it, a full partner in the creative play between word and image.”
The cast of characters is delightful. A glint of amphibious green soars above ballerinas mid-performance in The Story of the Dancing Frog. In Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, the mustachioed dapper Captain Najork commandeers a four-man crew who power a Victorian-inspired foot-motor boat in matching red-and-white marinières. Nearby are Blake’s illustrations for Voltaire’s Candide: the titular young Frenchman, his “trusty” Dr. Pangloss, and glimpses from the procession of dogmatic encounters, all imbued with mirth and the macabre.
And of course there are the Twits, Roald Dahl’s crusty, grizzled duo—one of two collaborations with Dahl displayed here. (The other is Danny the Champion of the World.) Blake and Dahl began to work together in 1977, on Dahl’s first illustrated book, The Enormous Crocodile, followed by The BFG, images of which were used on a set of four stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2012. The two collaborated until Dahl’s death in 1990.
Among the sundry drawings, the work that feels most representative of Blake, according to Zeff, is the book Clown. “He originally conceived the book with words, and then realized it would work better with just pictures—even the speech bubbles only have pictures—and that the Clown would follow the tradition of the French mime, Pierrot. Quentin often says that he thinks of the double page spread as a stage, and delights in the fact that he is able to be director, set designer and play all the parts when he is illustrating a story.”
”Inside Stories” runs through November 2 at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross London N1C 4BH.
Sarah Moroz is a freelance cultural journalist and translator based in Paris. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Publishers Weekly, amongst other publications.
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