Imagine any Roald Dahl novel, Matilda say or the BFG, what’s the picture that immediately appears in your mind? Chances are it’s one of the distinctive illustrations by Quentin Blake who’s longstanding collaboration with Dahl not only brought those stories to life in his uniquely simply style, but for many of us, more than 30 years after they were written, remains the definitive picture of those characters. The primary images we have of The Witches, The Twits, George’s cantankerous grandma and many others are in our minds because Quentin Blake put them there.
The House of Illustration is a new exhibition space close to King’s Cross Station that celebrates the artistry of those who have designed pictures to accompany children’s books. Neighbouring the relocated Central St Martins campus overlooking Regents Canal, its inaugural exhibition quite rightly celebrates Quentin Blake and his many decades of work. Although this is a very small space, just three rooms, there’s quite a lot packed in which gives an interesting insight into the process of illustrating and how Blake works with the writer to enhance the text of the book.
The first room is decorated with Blake’s images and has one cabinet explaining in cartoon form, of course, what an artist must think about when illustrating a new piece. This is a clever way to introduce you to the thought processes including which parts of the text to draw and how to get across the key story points, issues or emotions. Each part of the exhibition includes explanatory labels which Blake has written to help the viewer understand more about his working style – this is a nice touch because you then end up with a direct connection to the pieces on display rather than how they’ve been interpreted by a curatorial team.
Most of the work is in the second (and main room), with each wall or display case dedicated to an original artwork and sketches from a particular book that Blake has illustrated since the 1970s. These include two of Dahl’s books – Danny the Champion of the World and The Twits – as well as his own creations. The Dahl pieces were carefully chosen to highlight the contrasting styles that an illustrator may need to use; The Twits is more grotesque, cartoonish and silly to reflect the pantomime-nature of the book, whereas for Danny, Blake used a more realistic style to enhance the warmth and familiarity of that story. In both cases we get to see a number of pieces from the books which clearly underline this point about the illustrators’ skill in first selecting what to draw and then carefully suggesting the tone of the book.
This is perfectly demonstrated in the final room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad, depicting his own grief at the death of his eighteen-year old son. First we get to see the email Rosen sent to his publishers with the text for a potential book, written like a prose poem, which in itself is extremely moving. But then, around the room, are Blake’s interpretations of those feelings and descriptions of grief which both hammer home the crucial role of the illustrator and pack an enormous emotional punch at the end of this exhibition. Particular images linger in the mind, including Rosen’s description of sadness being all around him, which Blake depicted as a hunched Rosen against an imposing and overwhelming grey backdrop, where you can almost feel the emotion pressing down on him. Or the last picture of Rosen alone by a single lighted candle. These ensure you go home knowing that the pictures in children’s stories aren’t just pretty things to have, but a core means of conveying particular messages in a way that’s both visually appealing and quite affecting.
Although there’s a good amount of Blake’s work here, including his reimagining of Voltaire and accompanying images for David Walliams’s The Boy in the Dress, this is still a rather small exhibition which you can cover in about 30 minutes. Honestly, I was expecting there to be other work to see as well especially as the advertising hoardings on the walk from King’s Cross show lots of other artists’ work so I was expecting some permanent galleries in addition to the exhibition space. But if you go with that in mind, you’ll enjoy a chance to understand more about the process of illustration, and the man whose images will remain the definitive picture of many of our favourite childhood characters.
Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is at the House of Illustration until 2 November 2014. Entrance is £7.00 but a number of concessions are available.