Quentin Blake on life as an illustrator, his Mottisfont show and a desire for perfection
PUBLISHED: 11:47 20 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:47 20 October 2014
Following his hot ticket show at Mottisfont, Viv Micklefield talks to Quentin Blake about his journey from English teacher to the country's favourite illustrator
There have, apparently, been some unusual goings-on at Mottisfont in recent months. And it’s got nothing to do with any supernatural activity. Instead, hundreds of families have been spotted racing excitedly around the house and grounds of this National Trust property on an adventure story trail, all thanks to an inspiring collection of original artwork exhibited by the genius that is: Quentin Blake.
According to Louise Govier, Mottisfont’s visitor experience manager and gallery curator, Quentin Blake and Friends has been one of their most successful events ever, with over 70,000 visitors drawn to the eight-week summer show. “Everyone’s been delighted by it,” she says. “There’s something so direct about how children’s illustrations work, they tell a story straightaway. We’ve all looked at picture books, including perhaps with our own children or grandchildren, and as a result it’s a popular art form.” And another big hit with young and old alike, has been the chance to make their own illustrated book which, Louise acknowledges, got a big thumbs-up from the celebrated artist: “Quentin Blake saw how we wanted to use this exhibition to provide a fun day out, and was really supportive of the idea.”
It’s not the first time that the 81-year-old has left his mark locally. Take the splendid ‘Duke of Hampshire’ for instance, a character that’s the figment of erstwhile collaborator Roald Dahl’s imagination; yet Blake’s wit and sharp-eyed observation brings the tale of The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, to life on the page. And 2007 saw more fantastical creations when drawings and watercolours entitled, Frabjous Beasts toured to Lymington’s St Barbe’s Museum.
Perhaps his first and most important link with the county however comes from during a period of National Service he spent at the Royal Army Educational Corps based at Aldershot. One of few equipped with an English degree from Cambridge; he not only taught recruits but also illustrated a book to help some of them to read.
Speaking to me about his role as the UK’s first Children’s Laureate (1999-2001) Blake recalls how this was a great opportunity to challenge popular thinking. “I went into overdrive when I was appointed,” he says. “What I tried to do was talk to adults about illustrated books to demonstrate that these do a serious job by serving an educational function too. Out of that came the exhibition I had at the National Gallery.”
This rise to public prominence - he’s also served as head of illustration at the Royal College of Art, is all the more remarkable on learning that the man who earned his first paycheck aged 16 for drawings published in the satirical magazine Punch, is largely self-taught.
Blake explains: “I think when I was in my twenties I sort of found out how to do it properly, and have developed quite a lot since. However, the ‘handwriting’ has stayed the same. I mostly use a scratchy pen but also quills, and sometimes watercolour pencils contribute to a picture’s mood and atmosphere, which can tell you more about what is happening. A drawing will come out differently and adapt itself to whatever the situation is.”
At one end of the scale this includes illustrating a commemorative collection of Charles Dickens inspired postage stamps, celebrating the 150th publication of A Christmas Carol. While, by contrast, after working on large-scale murals he’s observed the therapeutic benefits his illustrations can sometimes have. “Taking drawings into hospitals I’ve noticed that they do speak to people. Some are just for entertainment and you hope there’s an element of vitality that stimulates individuals. But, if you can draw something which has slightly more complicated emotions in it, you do get a response from people. As an artist that’s tremendously encouraging.”
This goes some way to explaining Blake’s desire for perfection when it comes to telling a story accurately, and why some of Mottisfont’s exuberant exhibits might have looked familiar.
“What happens when I’m doing a book is that I quite often do an illustration on a page, and I do it twice or maybe even three times while I decide on the best version,” he says. “It might be that the character’s coat tails look better in this one, compared with that one. Sometimes when I see another version later displayed on a wall, I wonder if I chose the right one.”
With visitors reportedly bowled-over by seeing Blake’s storyboards for Arabella and Mortimer, which featured in the hit 1970’s TV show Jackanory, he would have been equally pleased at the reaction to a set of illustrations done for the latest hit West End stage adaptation of another Dahl classic: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“In the theatre, the black and white drawings are projected on to a huge screen and it’s as though you are reading a book and then moving into the stage production. “Amongst these, is a very nice picture of someone called a chocolatier,” he continues. “What’s interesting about doing a job like this is that there are so many things in a book that you never get to draw, including some strange creatures that don’t appear anywhere else.”
Having worked on more than 250 titles by 80 different authors, to whom he remains eternally thankful, the variety of subject matter tackled is vast. This, Blake agrees, sometimes allows for the more subversive elements of his alchemy to shine through. Illustrations of fables by La Fontaine, is a good example. “They weren’t written for children and a lot of them are quite adult, which gives you a whole range of fascinating things to draw,” he says. And next year, following his successful depiction of Voltaire’s Candide, he’s looking forward to doing more illustrations for The Folio Society, based on The Golden Ass.
I wonder if a clue to where his real passion and inspiration lies is in the art that’s hanging on the walls of his London home. He laughs. “There’s not a great deal! What I have got in the entrance to my flat is a collection of lithographs by the 19th century caricaturist Daumier. He’s a hero as far as I’m concerned, but on the whole I don’t have many pictures in my studio, I just have blank walls, it helps me to think. Of course, I’ve numerous art books of all kinds and I spend time looking at these. George Cruickshank is an English artist that I admire. I like those who draw, so I’m fond of Picasso and Goya as well.”
So, was following a different profession, ever an option?
“I might have stayed an English teacher and I wouldn’t have minded that. Curiously there are no other artists in the family, apart from my late brother who was a ‘Sunday painter’ but quite talented.”
As someone who’s a recipient of the world’s most prestigious children’s book prize, the Hans Christian Anderson Award, and holds a plethora of honorary doctorates, Blake remains charmingly humble about his success, describing a knighthood received in 2013 for Services to Illustration as: “Very gratifying.”
Some years ago, another commentator rather blithely suggested that he might consider retiring. Yet there’s little sign of that. Splitting his time between the capital and retreats in southern England and in France, he’s become a founding trustee of London’s new House of Illustration. And his long-time commitment to fundraising on behalf of Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity, and Survival International, continues.
Meanwhile, Mottisfont has also enjoyed something of a windfall thanks to many of the Blake artworks on show (as well as illustrations by his contemporaries Michael Foreman, John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury) having been offered for sale, with a percentage donated towards the property’s ongoing conservation costs. As Louise Govier observes, for buyers it’s not only a financial investment but about re-capturing a piece of their childhood.
These days, the accolade of being a national treasure is somewhat over-used. But judging by his devoted fans, it’s one that Quentin Blake rightly deserves.
More family fun at Mottisfont
• Keep the kids busy this half-term at the Monstrous Big Draw drop-in workshop, 12noon to 4pm on Saturday October 25, with artist-in-residence and creator of the new Mappa Mottisfont Louise O’Reilly; normal house admission charges apply.
• There’s also a natural history illustration course for adults running 12noon to 4pm on Saturday November 8, and places cost £30. Visit Mottisfont, near Romsey SO51 0LP, 01794 340757, to find out more and to book tickets head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont