The Incomparable Quentin Blake! May 15 2018

Quentin Blake print: Matilda

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.

Quentin Blake

                         Photo of Quentin Blake via BBC news

Always drawing

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.

Roald Dahl Cushion: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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.

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

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).

Roald meets Quentin

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.

Fantastic Mr. Fox cushion by Murraymaker

This Fantastic Mr. Fox pillowcase made by local textile designer Keelin Murray, AKA Murraymaker, shows how Quentin Blake captures Fantastic Mr. Fox’s excitement and the liveliness of the character.

B.F.G. print

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 collaboration with Roald Dahl

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.

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

"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.

Quentin Blake's illustrations for Michael Rosen's Sad Book

"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.

Every writer's favourite illustrator

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!

Russell Hoban: The Marzipan Pig, illustrated by Quentin Blake

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.

Tote bag: George's Marvellous Medicine

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.

Lesser Known Masterpieces from Your Favourite Illustrators November 08 2017

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by John Yeoman

A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

The nature of children's books and childhood memory means that we often associate our favourite illustrators with just one book or series. Quentin Blake's recognisable inky illustrations will forever be associated with Roald Dahl, and Shirley Hughes' soft style immediately stirs fondness for her well-known Alfie series. But illustrators usually create masses of work in the span of their careers, and some of the most accomplished work from our favourite illustrators lies in books you might not have heard of yet! Here are some of our favourite lesser-known books from the most iconic illustrators of the last century.

Shirley Hughes 
Best known for Alfie

My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection

In 1968, Methuen commissioned the artist Shirley Hughes to illustrate the fourth collection of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories, which began as a series of popular radio broadcasts. The series' author Dorothy Edwards loved Hughes’ illustrations so much that she was asked to re-illustrate the earlier collections for reissue, and the most well-known image of My Naughty Little Sister is now Shirley Hughes' depiction of her.

Alfie cushion Shirley Hughes

This work was a breakthrough success for Hughes, who went on to illustrate over fifty books, including her own massively popular Alfie series. Egmont recently released My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection, which has Shirley Hughes’ illustrations in full colour for the first time! You can buy it here.

Tove Jansson
Best known for creating The Moomins

In 1959, Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Her illustration style suited Carroll’s strangeness perfectly, and this project is hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest children’s authors of the past 150 years.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwhich presented her with an exciting opportunity to try out a new style. Upon receiving her work the book’s delighted editor immediately sent Jansson a telegram which read “Congratulations for Alice- you have produced a masterpiece”.

Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wondrland, illustrated by Tove Jansson

E.H. Shepard
Best known for Winnie-the-Pooh

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows

E.H. Shepard sometimes lamented that his beloved illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh overshadowed his other work. He was a brilliantly versatile illustrator, adept at capturing the atmosphere of any writer’s work. Shepard was the original illustrator of the first edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His drawings for the book show his skill at capturing characters and atmosphere, in a world that is very different from the Hundred Acre Wood. The Wind in the Willows has since been taken on by countless illustrators, Inga Moore’s version is one of our other favourites.

Quentin Blake
Best known for collaborating with Roald Dahl 

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

Long before he ever heard of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake was already a popular illustrator. He first became well known for illustrating covers of Punch magazine, but always wanted to illustrate a full book. He asked his friend John Yeoman to write a collection of stories for him to illustrate, and in 1960 A Drink of Water was published. The book had been out of print for about fifty years, but Thames and Hudson recently released a new facsimile edition which is completely loyal to the original. (You can get it here). Blake’s illustrations, in his now iconic scratchy style, are immediately recognisable. Because of early sixties printing methods, the illustrations only use only two colours, which today gives them a lovely vintage feel. (You can see more of this 1960s print style in The Mellops go Spelunking and A Balloon for a Blunderbuss).

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake’s amazing ability to illustrate a book’s most complex concepts is maybe best exemplified in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He said that this illustration, of the author “being sad but pretending [he’s] being happy”, was the most difficult he’s ever done, as he had to capture the sadness behind a smile. The image that follows it depicts how Rosen is really feeling. The comparison strikes to the heart of what the book is about. 

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

William Nicholson
Best known for The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit

William’s Nicholson was the original illustrator of Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit, a story which has not declined in popularity since its original publication in 1922. Nicholson’s other books are now less famous, but are no less brilliant. He both wrote and illustrated Clever Bill, which Maurice Sendak described as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.

Clever Bill by William Nicholson

Sven Nordqvist
Best known for Findus and Pettson

Sven Nordqvist is a household name all over Scandinavia and in Germany for his series of books about an old farmer and mischievous cat, Findus and Pettson. But arguably his best work as an illustrator is in his stand-alone book Where Is My Sister.

Where Is My Sister by Sven Nordqvist

He conceived this book before Findus and Pettson ever existed, and came back to the project after becoming a successful illustrator. Where is My Sister is a surreal dreamscape of intricately detailed double spreads, published in large format which allows you to escape into its world for hours.

Jon Klassen
Best known for The Hat Trilogy

Jon Klassen is one of the most popular picture book makers working today. He’s best known for his explosively funny trilogy of books about animals and hats; I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. His collaborations with the writer Mac Barnett have also brought him acclaim. Their latest, The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse, was published only last month.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett

Klassen and Barnett’s books are marked by their sly humour and expressive, devious animals, but Klassen's collaborations with other writers show a versatile range. House Held Up By Trees is written by poet Ted Kooser, and Klassen’s illustrations for it are on a completely different register to his other work. They have a sombre stillness that works well with the book’s reflective and poetic text.

House Held Up by Trees

Jon Klassen has also collaborated with the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket. Their book, The Dark, is all about the balance of light and dark, both in its story and its artwork.

Lemony Snicket: The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Our carefully curated selection of books includes lots of lesser known works by iconic illustrators, as well as books from amazing artists you may not have heard of. You can browse the entire range here

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