Quentin Blake has been drawing for as long as he can remember, having had his first illustration accepted by Punch magazine when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy. Half a century later, he’s still churning them out as if there’s no tomorrow in his studio, a short walk from Earl’s Court in west London.
These days he boasts the grand title of Children’s Laureate, though it is hard to imagine anyone less grand than Blake. When he draws himself it’s always as a scruffy, bald, unshaven gnome. In reality he is indeed bald and vertically challenged, but there is a twinkle in his eye and an infectious laugh that comes through in the work of this doyen of illustrators.
What strikes everyone about Blake’s drawings is their apparent effortlessness and joie de vivre. He is the PG Wodehouse of book illustration, rigorously dedicated to cheering us up whatever the cost to his artistic integrity.
Internationally, he is probably best known for his long collaboration with the late Roald Dahl, who remains one of the world’s most popular children’s authors, but Blake’s frenzied little people, always bursting with energy, have a habit of turning up all over the place. I was sorting out some old books recently when I came across an original 1960s Penguin paperback of Lucky Jim, the novel that brought Kingsley Amis recognition. No prizes for guessing who illustrated the cover.
In his early days Blake was in awe of cartoonists Ronald Searle and Andre Francois, and the 19th century artist and illustrator Honore Daumier, whose theatrical flair he greatly admired. In his teens Blake splashed out on a book of Daumier drawings costing two guineas. Now he can afford to buy the originals.
The Dahl books are translated into umpteen languages, bringing in a steady trickle of international royalties, and at 66 Blake is busier than ever. Among the half dozen or so projects in hand is an illustrated national curriculum for the Department of Education and Science, with a print run of six million copies.
He is also working on a massive picture book collaboration with 1500 French school children – he has a house near Bordeaux where he spends a lot of time – and, as the climax of his two-year stint as the first Children’s Laureate, he is organising an exhibition for children at the National Gallery next year.
For this, Blake will choose one artist to represent each letter of the alphabet. “It was my idea to find a way to make great paintings more accessible to children and at the same time, stimulate their imaginations. To my surprise the National Gallery said ‘yes’ straight away. It organises the funding and everything. I just have to select the pictures from its collection.”
Being the first Children’s Laureate, Blake wasn’t sure what it would entail, but as soon as the appointment was confirmed he started to fire off ideas. “The committee that made the appointment more or less left it up to me to do whatever I thought appropriate. I never meant to do as much as I have, but as soon as I started to think about it there were all kinds of things that sprang to mind. I hope I haven’t made too much of a cross for my successor to bear.”
One of the things that made him the ideal choice for Laureate was his ability to explain and elucidate the illustrator’s art. For many years he taught illustration and design at the Royal College of Art. “I’ve always made a living from illustration, so teaching was never a necessity, it was something I enjoyed. My students were usually postgraduate, so I didn’t teach technique. What I did was analyse their work in the context of whatever it was they were trying to illustrate,” says Blake.
One of his works-in-progress is Words and Pictures, a lavishly illustrated, semi-autobiographical book due out in the autumn. In this, Blake accounts for half a century of artistic outpourings and continuing popularity. The illustrator, he writes, must reflect not just his author’s characters, but also the whole atmosphere of the book.
“As in human relationships,” says Blake “there is often the need for a measure of accommodation. The illustrator may find different aspects of his personality revealed or underlined by working with different authors. You have to discover things in yourself that you might not think you could or should have done.”
Blake’s most challenging working relationship was probably the one he had with Dahl, with whom he collaborated from 1975 until Dahl’s death in 1990. Initially, they were brought together by the flamboyant publisher Tom Maschler. “We didn’t know each other so we worked mostly through the publisher in the early stages. We were very different sorts of people, which made it more interesting in a way. There was more interplay and crossfire. I never knew about the next project until he sent me the manuscript. I think he quite enjoyed winding me up by setting me illustrative challenges and visual gags. When we were working on The BFG, we had a problem deciding what the giant should wear on his feet. Roald felt the boots he’d described in his text looked dull in my drawings. Then I received an oddly shaped parcel in the post. When I unwrapped it I found a large sandal of a type unfamiliar to me. I soon discovered it was Norwegian and belonged to Roald. It you want to know what it looks like, it’s what the BFG wears in the book.”
Despite the punishing workload, Blake is in tune with his own aspirations. “I enjoy looking at my own work, even if I feel I could have done something better. Of course, you always hope that you’ll improve, but I never hate the work that I’ve done. I operate pretty serious quality control.”
He has no regrets about his non-mastery of computer techniques – “I’m quite happy to have missed out” – and neither is he bothered about the lack of animated versions of his drawings. Even the most inventive animator would be hard pressed to make Blake’s work any more animated than it is.
As I take my leave he shows me a handsome book of drawings of women reading and it occurs to me that there may be a frustrated fine artist lurking somewhere behind all this prosperous bonhomie. “Perhaps.” he sighs. “But I think I’m better at what I do.”