Artist Quentin Blake’s illustrations often go hand in hand with childhood memories, and now, the South Kensington local wants us to discover the joy of drawing for ourselves, finds Cem Topcam
‘Do you know, it’s impossible to say!’ Quentin Blake begins, remarking on whether elements of South Kensington, where he now resides, have crept into his work. ‘I think it must have seeped in somehow, I’ve been living here a very long time. Probably the architecture did influence me.’
In addition to his South Kensington abode, Quentin owns a home on the south-western coast of France, in Charentes-Maritime, and has been published as widely across the Channel as he has on these shores. It is an influence he feels even when at home in west London. ‘There are two French bookshops in South Kensington and I’ve spent quite a lot of times doing things with the French Institute. I mostly just work or read but quite often on the weekend I go to Daunt Books on Fulham Road.’
Quentin Blake is irrefutably one of the most recognisable illustrators and storytellers in children’s literature. His scratchy characters have adorned more than 17 Roald Dahl tales, and he’s also written and illustrated 35 books of his own, in his native English as well as in French. And now, the 81-year-old is as active as ever. Just months ago, he helped to launch The House of Illustration in King’s Cross, which opened with a large-scale exhibition of his works, Inside Stories. And then, there’s his numerous passion projects closer to home.
In recent years, Quentin has been working closely with The Nightingale Project, an initiative which began in South Kensington to brighten up the environments of mental health services using art and music. ‘They were refurbishing a residential ward [at South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre] into individual rooms maybe nine years ago and asked would I do some pictures for them. I did about a dozen pictures which are now mounted as prints on the walls, then they said would I do some for the bedrooms, and I did about 60,’ he explains.
Another of Quentin’s prominent initiatives is The Big Draw and its accompanying charity The Campaign for Drawing; the largest drawing festival in the world, encompassing a series of events that encourage everyone to grab a pencil and engage with the art form in new and inventive ways.
Quentin says of the project: ‘It’s beneficial because if people go into museums and art galleries to draw it sort of changes their relationship to the museum. It changes your point of view from being ‘allowed’ to go into these spaces to going in with a job to do – drawing.’
Quentin believes the event helps to combat children feeling inhibited by drawing, ‘when they get to 12 or 13 and they start to feel that other people do it better than they do. In a sense it is not to encourage them to draw, but to tell them they are allowed to draw,’ he explains.
So what is it about illustration that keeps him interested? ‘It’s a rewarding activity because it engages you in looking at something else, either something which is in front of you or something which is in your imagination. It’s exercising a skill, it’s like singing, or carpentry, it needs your attention and it’s actually stimulating. I’ve been doing it 75 years and it’s continuously interesting,’ he says.
For most of us, the stories of Roald Dahl cannot be remembered without picturing Quentin’s interpretations of the writer’s characters: the uni brows of Mr and Mrs Twit, or Willy Wonka’s purple tailcoat. Quentin recalls when he began working with Roald: ‘We didn’t know each other very well to begin with, for the first book or two, but we found we had to collaborate more on The BFG which was the third, and that’s when I started going down to [his home in] Great Missenden. I’d do rough drawings of what I thought the characters would look like. As somebody said, he was a formidable personality, but this wasn’t really a problem because I wanted him to be happy, if you see what I mean. I think we established a very good collaboration because he understood that. I was ready to change things, I’m not fussy like that, and that is part of the job.
‘He saw the drawings as being part of what the book was doing. And although we were very different kinds of people, a lot of the sense of humour was the same. You never knew what was going to come next; each book wasn’t the same as the one that came before. The Twits is a very stringent caricature sort of book and Danny the Champion of the World is almost lyrical. It brings out the contrast between them and that was interesting, you had to adapt yourself to a new book each time,’ he says. Since their collaboration sadly came to a close following Dahl’s passing in 1990, Quentin has never ceased creating. Today, he is ready as he has ever been to draw new memories for the next generation to enjoy.