If you were asked to name an illustrator almost certainly the first name to pop into your head would be Quentin Blake whose distinctive and deceptively simple style is instantly recognisable. And his work will almost certainly be the first image you think of when someone mentions the author’s he’s worked with. In particular, think of any book by Roald Dahl – be it The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine or Matilda – and almost guaranteed you’re thinking of Blake’s ink figures, embodying Dahl’s work so completely that they’re still in your mind decades later.
So, when the House of Illustration announced it would open a permanent Blake Gallery, the first of its kind in the world, it made perfect sense. Blake is closely associated with the space above King’s Cross, a Trustee and subject of its inaugural exhibition back in 2014 – Inside Stories. The Quentin Blake Gallery is a tiny L-shaped room behind the shop which is currently hosting Seven Kinds of Magic, an exhibition of Blake’s magic-related drawings for seven different authors since the 1960s. This runs until August where it will be replaced by another themed collection, this time all devoted to the BFG – the pieces will change, but it will always be Blake.
Seven Kinds of Magic is as minimalist as Blake’s own style with just a handful of pieces labelled only with a book title, author and year. So there will be something for everyone, parent or child, a work familiar from your own childhood to enjoy in this show. For me, of course the original depiction of Dahl’s Grand High Witch’s swirling eyes as she destroys some poor creature is a treat but others will enjoy Rosie’s Magic Horse, Patrick, Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets, Angel Pavement, My Friend Mr Leakey and Magical Tales. There are no signs explaining each story and nothing telling you which page of the book the displayed illustrations belongs to… but you don’t really need it. Not only are Blake’s drawings so vivid that you can see immediately what is happening in the story, but this is deliberately an exhibition about the art and not how accurately Blake told the story. So marvel at the skills, the inventiveness, the use of colour and energy in each of these works, and more than anything the power of Blake to give life to the work of so many authors for so long,
The House of Illustration (HoI) is probably the best value gallery in London, charging you just £7.70 (£7 without donation) to enjoy all three of its current shows. There’s a tiny exhibition of Shojo Manga cartoons in the lovely sunlit gallery besides Quentin Blake until 12 June, drawn by female artists with some borrowing from Western traditions and associations including a strangely fascinating Edwardian-based series by Akiko Hatsu. We also see an evolution of character in these works which take in changing attitudes to homosexuality and romance in incredibly detailed flourishes by Keiko Takemiya.
The centrepiece show until Sunday 15 May looks at the work of female comic creators, which takes over its larger four room exhibition space. One of the most impressive things about HoI is the well-researched and carefully curated nature of its exhibitions that always manage to speak to its audience intellectually without dumbing-down the material or making ridiculous associative leaps. From the illustrations of Ladybird books to the First World War sketches of E.H. Shepard, it’s clear that considerable thought and care has gone into these shows resulting in a high quality experience – and Comic Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics is no exception.
Starting with examples from the eighteenth-century caricaturists like Mary Darly, it takes in the role of female comic artists through a variety of thematic contributions including graphic novels, comic strips, erotic cartoons, and in a completely new genre of health-based graphic novels. The latter acts like a diary, charting the diagnoses and progress of treatment for various diseases. Its easily digestible form is both a cathartic outlet for the writer and an accessible guide for other sufferers. Similarly, the works of Una look at sexual violence against women in the hope that transferring them to another medium may make it easier to confront and discuss.
It is abundantly clear from this exhibition that comics now take multiple forms, not just entertainment but a flexible medium for telling stories no matter how light-hearted or grave, and women are at the forefront of some of these developments. Looking for something a little more frivolous, and there’s some wonderful examples of Nicola Lane’s work in which a grown-up Beryl the Peril from the Dandy ends up married to the Beano’s Dennis the Menace – which she also discusses in the video interviews at the end of the exhibition – as well plenty of superheroes, space adventurers and bizarre creatures to delight any traditional comic-book fan.
Cartoons are also included from around the world demonstrating the role that women from as far afield as India and Africa are playing in making sense of their own cultures and proffering it in a digestible way. In addition we’re told about the Japanese artists using manga to create accessible introductions to the work of Shakespeare, whose plays take on new meaning and association in this stylised illustrated form, helping to ease new audiences into appreciating the timelessness of these stories. We also see work from Jackie Omes who developed the first syndicated comic strip representing African-American women, while Rutu Modan’s 2007 comic strip is set in Tel Aviv and tells the story of romance between a young woman and an Israeli soldier.
Comic Creatrix is a fascinating insight into the work of a diverse range of female artists covering an even more diverse range of subjects. Evidently, using cartoons has become a valuable medium to represent serious topics in an engaging and non-threatening way that is allowing the voices and experiences of more people to be heard and understood. This exhibition is only running for one more week so make time in your schedules to visit the House of Illustration to see if before it closes, and for just £7 you’ll see three of the most fascinating and well-curated shows in London.
The House of Illustration is currently hosting Comic Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics until 15 May, Shojo Manga: The World of Japanese Girls’ Comics until 12 June and Quentin Blake: Seven Kinds of Magic until 24 August. Entrance to HoI costs £7.70 (with donation) and concessions are available.
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