BLOG Jack Pugh

NWR Issue 112

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories

What does an illustrator think about? The question is posed as you walk into Quentin Blake: Inside Stories, currently on display at National Museum Cardiff. The answer is wonderfully revealed in the exhibition through years’ worth of Blake’s storyboards, drafts, musings.

Inside Stories offers an insight into something of what it is like to be tasked with illustrating a book – what should the characters look like? How to arrange the pictures? How to capture this emotion through a drawing? To illustrate is not only to decorate a book, but to collaborate with an author – to inspire the imagination through snapshots, scenes, images. To give the reader something to be drawn into.

The exhibition comes to the Museum as part of a number of events happening across Cardiff for Roald Dahl’s centennial celebrations. It focuses, of course, on this most famous collaboration between author and illustrator, beginning with The Enormous Crocodile in 1978, up until The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, published in 1991. For many, Quentin Blake’s imaginings of what Dahl’s fantastic worlds might look like are those worlds themselves.

When we imagine the BFG catching dreams, it is Blake’s BFG. It is Blake’s George who concocts his marvellous medicine. And it is Blake’s Charlie who ever so carefully peels the wrapper from his Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. Which makes it all seem completely natural, as though Blake’s illustrations were always destined to adorn Dahl’s pages. And yet highlighted here is the pure amount of drawing and redrawing that takes place when illustrating a book - the thought processes behind each illustration, the mood it must create, its composition. The illustrator becomes as much an author as the writer of the text itself.

One sketch, for example, shows drawing upon drawing of the BFG’s ears, in various shapes and sizes. In one particular quote printed on the wall, Blake wonders in which way he should position the various detritus of Mr. Twit’s beard – a sardine tail appears at the curl of the mouth, a piece of stilton just above the chin, a singular corn flake perches on the moustache – in order to maximise the reader’s disgust. Matilda appears perfectly tiny, faced with a bookshelf and a librarian. A natural, and touching, collaboration – but not without hard work and a great deal of thought.

And yet, there is more to Blake than his famous collaborations with Dahl. It was refreshing to see some of his other work exhibited. A stand-out was his work for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, an account of the author’s life following the death of his son, Eddie, at 19. Rosen’s spare text (grief-stricken, at a loss for words) is matched with Blake’s bare, at times hopeful, at others bittersweet, illustrations. It is here it can be said that illustration is used in its truest sense – to shed light on its subject. It is a rare talent that can combine a childlike composition of style with both a depth and a complexity of emotion. Blake recounts one illustration in particular – a portrait of Rosen, attempting to appear brave-faced. He tells us this portrait went through ‘many versions’. One can only imagine quite how many he means.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, David Hockney remarked that ‘drawing is natural’ and that ‘there is a deep desire to make pictures, that’s why children draw’. And there is certainly something childlike in Blake’s drawing. He says himself that he ‘discovered that a drawing can fulfil its purpose and still be scratchy and instinctive and badly behaved’. Yet there is something else there – in Rosen’s painfully worked-over half-smile, in the exaggerated smallness of Matilda against a bookshelf and a librarian, in a grown-up’s world. The contemplation of something altogether more adult which (looked at closely) sheds light, and a certain darkness, on its subject.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is on at the National Museum Cardiff until 20 November.


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