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Every month we blog about an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite artists' backgrounds and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. We've covered everyone from contemporary picture book makers like Chris Haughton, to the much loved creator of the Alfie series, Shirley Hughes. For May, we’ve chosen one of the world’s most successful and loved illustrators, Quentin Blake.
Quentin Blake is best known for his work with Roald Dahl. He illustrated all of Roald Dahl’s most popular novels, including Matilda and The B.F.G; these two masters of children's literature are inextricably linked in our imaginations. But Blake has also collaborated with a range of other writers, including Michael Rosen and Russell Hoban, and written his own books. To date he has illustrated over 300 books! Quentin Blake is one of the most popular children’s illustrators alive, but his mainstream popularity doesn’t make him any less daring and artistic. His artwork in books like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is challenging and experimental.
Photo of Quentin Blake via BBC news
As a child growing up in the suburbs of London, Quentin Blake was always interested in drawing. His first published illustration appeared in Punch when he was only 16 and still at school. He studied English at Cambridge, and later attended a life drawing course at Chelsea Art School. This study of life drawing was a key influence on Blake’s style. His work is loose, and his figures don’t always follow strict anatomy and proportions. But his command of human gesture and his expressive sense of movement is unparalleled.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cushion. Buy it here.
Blake has always made a living as an illustrator, he worked on commission for years for magazines like Punch and The Spectator. For a number of years he was also a lecturer and staff member at the Royal College of Art. But what he always wanted most was to illustrate a whole book. Having no idea how to go about making this a reality, he asked his friend John Yeoman to write something that he could illustrate. The result was A Drink of Water, first published in 1960.
Buy this book here.
This charming collection of animal stories was recently reissued for the first time in around fifty years by Thames & Hudson. Their facsimile edition reproduces the book exactly as it was on its first publication. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are rendered in just three shades, black, sandy brown and pink. Working in a limited colour range was common at the time, because of production methods. The reissued edition of A Drink of Water offers us a chance to own a piece of illustration history! (You can buy it here or in store).
Quentin Blake is brilliant at capturing the full range of human emotions in his drawings, and this made him a perfect partner for Roald Dahl’s exuberant children’s novels. Their collaboration began in 1978 with The Enormous Crocodile. The two masters found a compatible spark in eachother’s work from the very beginning. Quentin Blake has said that the element of exaggeration and comedy in Dahl’s writing suited his style of drawing gestures and movement.
Blake has said that his favourite book of Dahl’s he ever worked on was The B.F.G. By this stage in their collaboration, the two men were in close communication about their ideas. Blake’s drawings helped to develop Dahl’s text, and vice versa.
Roald Dahl originally envisioned the B.F.G. wearing large boots and a leather smock, but when the author received drafts of Blake’s illustrations, he decided the outfit didn’t suit. Instead, Dahl suggested that the B.F.G should wear a type of Norwegian sandal which the author himself wore. When Quentin Blake had difficulty visualising the sandal from a description on the phone, Roald Dahl sent him one in the post! The sandal itself is now displayed as an artefact in The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, in Buckinghamshire.
Quentin Blake’s skill and uniqueness as an illustrator means he can retain his recognisable style while bringing something new to each project he works on. With every book he works on, he adjusts his materials and style slightly to suit the mood of the work. He has said that the most challenging illustration he ever had to create was this one from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, of the author being sad but pretending to be happy.
"This is me being sad", from Michael Rosen's Sad Book
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is an immensely moving and honest portrayal of grief and sadness. In it, Michael Rosen talks about the death of his son Eddie, but he also speaks about sadness more generally, and the way it affects everyone. Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the book express the inexpressible; the blinding pain of grief.
"Then I look like this. And there's nothing I can do about it."- Michael Rosen's Sad Book
But his illustrations also show the glimmer of hope and human kindness that gets us through the hardest times. His deft touches of yellow brighten the book’s pages, just as Rosen’s happy memories of his son can bring him joy even alongside his sadness.
Michael Rosen has said that he wrote the text for the Sad Book in one go, and that it wasn’t really a book until Quentin Blake’s work made it one. It’s testament to Blake’s listening skills and sensitivity that authors seem to love him, and he’s had long standing collaborations with not only Roald Dahl, but Rosen, John Yeoman and Russell Hoban. Russell Hoban was an American writer who lived most of his life in England. His collaborations with Quentin Blake include one of the newest additions to our shelves, The Marzipan Pig!
The Marzipan Pig is the story of an unfortunate cake decoration who gets wedged behind the sofa and forgotten. As the sugary pig grows greasier and greasier, his loneliness grows. Until, one day, he is gobbled up by a mouse. Soon the marzipan’s pig’s longing to be loved passes on to the mouse, and a chain of mysterious events unfolds. Blake’s illustrations for The Marzipan Pig are painted exclusively in grey, piglet pink and buttery yellow, emphasising the sweetness and simplicity of this funny story.
Whether you grew up with Quentin Blake’s illustrations, have children of your own, or have an interest fine art, his work can be appreciated on many different levels. Quentin Blake’s illustrations are now a part of the public imagination. We’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love him!
Own your own piece of Quentin Blake artwork with our range of prints from his collaborations with Roald Dahl. We’ve also got some lovely Quentin Blake cushions and tote bags.
Or enjoy the illustrations in their original context when you pick up one of his many books.