Quentin Blake is one of Britain's most successful illustrators and children's authors.
He was born in 1932, reading English at Cambridge, then studying teaching at the University of London, and life classes at Chelsea Art School. He has always made his living as an illustrator, as well as teaching for over twenty years at The Royal College of Art, where he was head of the Illustration department from 1978 to 1986. His first drawings were published in Punch at the age of sixteen, and he continued to draw for Punch, The Spectator and other magazines for many years, while entering the world of children's books with his first book as an illustrator, A Drink of Water and Other Stories by John Yeoman, in 1960.
He has illustrated nearly 300 books, and is known for his collaboration with writers such as Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken and Michael Rosen. He is the major illustrator for Roald Dahl books, including The BFG, The Witches, Matilda and Esio Trot, all of which have won major prizes.
He has also written and illustrated his own books, for which he has also won awards, starting with Patrick which was published in 1968, and including Angelo (1970), which was later used as the basis for a children's opera. He is the creator of much-loved characters such as Mister Magnolia and Mrs Armitage.
He was awarded an OBE in 1988, and a CBE in 2005, for services to Children's Literature. In 1990, he was voted "The Illustrator's Illustrator" by Observer Magazine and in 1999, was appointed the first ever Children's Laureate, a post designed to raise the profile of children's literature. He has also won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration.
Melanie McDonagh, of the Daily Telegraph, writes, 'I've never met a child who didn't love Quentin Blake.'
The energy and mischievous humour of Quentin Blake’s art, as well as its compassionate social awareness, are evident in his award-winning children’s picture book Clown (1995).
Without dialogue, it has the purity of a silent film, creating movement and telling its delightful story entirely through pictures. After being thrown out with other toys, a clown doll flips itself out of a trashcan, joins a fancy dress parade, is chased by a dog, and is then thrown accidentally into a poor high-rise apartment. There his antics help to quiet a crying child, and he helps the harassed babysitter to tidy the apartment. Then they all go out into the city, against a vivid red sky and grey city buildings, and retrieve the others. By the time the child’s mother comes home, the clown has become a loved toy again. Characteristically, the book also conveys an underlying moral theme, about rejection and connectedness.
Blake’s dynamic pen strokes typically create odd, unruly characters, almost always seen in concert with children, rendering them in a sprightly manner. As Sue Hubbard, an art critic writing in The Independent, has observed: ‘His drawing is wonderfully free and playful, the colour bleeding with carefree abandon over the ink outlines to give a sense of movement and vitality’. He is now one of Britain’s most popular artists, and so recognizable have Blake’s illustrations become, that his gently anarchic images have spread to greetings cards. In 1999 he was appointed the first Children’s Laureate, and his achievement has recently been marked by a major retrospective exhibition: ‘Quentin Blake: Fifty Years of Illustration’, held at Somerset House in London in 2004. His work was also a major part of the British Council's 'Magic Pencil' Exhibition which began touring the world in 2002, and there are apparently future plans for a Quentin Blake Gallery.
Blake started out precociously, having drawings in Punch magazine while still a schoolboy in 1949, and becoming a regular contributor. He has been a prolific artist since then, returning to teaching in 1965 as a part-time tutor at the Royal College of Art, where today he is a visiting professor. Among his significant book illustrations have been those for Russell Hoban, starting with How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen (1974), and the late Joan Aiken’s Arabel and Mortimer (1980), responding especially to her bizarre fantasy elements, horses with eight folding legs and magical motor cars. His drawings for Michael Rosen’s book of children’s verse Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here (1983) are perhaps typical, children and play being a perennial subject in Blake’s work. Here they are shown at play, doing the washing up, or consuming ‘mad meals’ (including matchbox on toast) and ‘mad drinks’ (fizzy mouse, hot petrol, paint shake). Such items recall Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, and indeed for a whole generation of children and young adults, Blake’s collaboration with Dahl has been his most important. Blake’s illustrations are integral to books such as The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982), and The Witches (1983). ‘Part of the huge appeal of the Dahl/ Blake collaboration is their understanding of a child’s need to subvert the adult world. In this the foul Twits perfectly fit the bill’, observes Sue Hubbard. We see the food particles in Mr Twit’s whiskers, and the wormy spaghetti fed to him by Mrs Twit. The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) is a lovable ogre with elephant ears and a leather jerkin, while the cover of Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts (1984) has two children wary of animals with predatory smiles. Dahl’s disconcertingly funny poems tell us of a ‘wonderfully clever pig’ that eats its owner, and ‘Crocky-Wock the Crocodile’ takes bed-sheets in its mouth to terrify a small boy and his father. A scorpion, porcupine, and even an ant-eater wreak havoc, and then there is a boy and his mother beset by ‘The Tummy Beast’.
Blake’s career as an author-illustrator began with Patrick in 1968, and this has become his main mode over the last two decades. Mister Magnolia (1980) is a typically spiky-haired character, with a waistcoat and bow tie, and carrying a trumpet. ‘Mr Magnolia has only one boot’, and the book proceeds by pursuing the end rhyme, somewhat in the manner of the ‘Dr. Seuss’ books. We see him juggling fruit, his sisters playing the flute, green parakeets pecking his suit, and in the most detailed picture he is riding a pedal scooter with six small children holding on to his leg. Blake repeats such a rhyming format in works such as Fantastic Daisy Artichoke (1999), in which two children are befriended by a joyously zany lady, and meet her pets. Another of Blake’s eccentrics is the heroine of the series of ‘Mrs Armitage’ books. In Mrs Armitage on Wheels (1987), for instance, her car gets converted into a motorbike by a succession of accidents, and she ends up joining a gang of friendly bikers. Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave (1997) is another comically unlikely scenario, when she goes surfing accompanied by faithful dog Breakspear. The continuous thread in the story is her saying ‘What we need here is …’, and she proceeds to accumulate beach items and rescues a young girl, before finally riding a big wave.
Some of his more recent works for children are essentially moral fables about the need for mutual care. Zagazoo (1998), for example, is about growing up. A couple take delivery of a strange parcel, which turns out to be a baby. It changes into a succession of alarming animals, including a screeching vulture, a baby elephant (‘How can we cope?’), and even a bad-tempered dragon. By the time it finally changes into a well-mannered young man, the couple have themselves become a pair of large brown pelicans. It ends with the cheery caption: ‘Isn’t life amazing!’ In the very funny Loveykins (2002), a middle-aged woman experiencing the ‘empty nest syndrome’ finds an abandoned bird after a storm and takes it home. We see her wrapping it up in a duvet, feeding it creamed carrots, éclairs, black forest gateau and even taking it into a shop (where it longingly gazes at a passing beetle). As ‘Augustus’ gets bigger she installs him in a garden shed, but after another storm, he becomes himself, a giant bird flapping his wings. Flying over many upturned smiling faces, this new freedom brings him ‘such prospects! such vistas!’
A Sailing Boat in the Sky (2002) returns to showing children in action, but also reflects Blake’s concerns with international problems of prejudice, pollution, war and the environment. This is a very simple but magical tale, as two children find and repair a broken boat, finding that they too can fly. They use it to rescue a talking stork, then some vulnerable children from persecution, and pick up Magda and her baby from a war zone. A fierce-looking but kind granny assists them, and they fix a new patchwork sail. ‘And what happened after that’, it concludes, ‘you will just have to imagine …’ Quentin Blake’s graphic eloquence, his funny, tender and joyously anarchic artwork, has made him not only one of the most important illustrators produced in Britain since the 1950s, but also one of the best-loved.
Dr Jules Smith, 2004