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The secret world of Quentin Blake

Jane Clinton reports on an exhibition that is putting Quentin Blake’s previously unseen figurative works on show

25 October, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Quentin Blake’s work is on show at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross. Photo: Paul Grover

HE is best-known for his adorably scratchy creations that accompany the stories of Roald Dahl.

But alongside his vast public collection of illustrations, which include The BFG and Matilda, Quentin Blake’s private figurative paintings have remained hidden.

Now 100 of these works have been brought together for the first time in an exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

Featuring large-scale pieces created between 1950 and 2000, we are offered a glimpse into another part of the Blake imagination.

There are delicate watercolours that seem to draw you in to their intimate world; likewise the wet pastels, which have a dreamy quality. The vivid oils and their use of bright colours adds a potency, and danger, to the paintings. Then there are the inks, their broken lines making them more easily recognisable as Blake.

“They are about feelings and the human situation, if that’s not too grand,” he says of the works.

An example of Quentin Blake’s oil on canvas. Images: Quentin Blake

We see him experiment with materials and the scale of the paintings allow him to indulge in broad brushwork.

Quentin, 85, started drawing from an early age. His first illustrations were published in Punch magazine when he was 16 and still at school.

He went on to study English at Downing College, Cambridge, and then went on to do a postgraduate teaching diplomas at the University of London.

When he finished his university studies in 1957 he would take the train to London once or twice a week to attend life drawing classes at Chelsea School of Art.

It was when he got home that he found he would draw “invented figures in invented surroundings”.

This process left him with skills for which he remains grateful.

“I seem to have been able to illustrate figures in any positions without reference ever since,” he says. “The second direction was into oil painting… it has been important and valuable to me to have that too as part of my experience of art.”

He admits the works were not particularly carefully stored but were “just shoved in the back room”.

Another painting that features in 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake

Seeing them all together, he says, is “strange”.

“They have been restored and reframed and I can remember all of them. Some of them have been in exhibitions but I have not had them all together like this, which is wonderful.”

Working at a bigger scale he found “therapeutic”.

“I was doing small scratchy pen drawings so it was wonderful to get some industrial paint brushes and do something that was 6ft by 8ft.”

He hopes people will see that illustration and painting are not so very different and that “the same instincts are at work” in both.

As well as this exhibition he has just recently completed five illustrations depicting 20 pioneering scientists, including Ada Lovelace and pilot Amy Johnson, which are now hanging at the Science Museum.

Recently he released a series of illustrations imagining one of his most famous creations, Matilda, as a 30-year-old adult.

As for his figurative work he is typically self-effacing.

“I did life drawing for two years and then never did it again, “ he says. “I just make it all up now!”

• 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake is at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross N1C 4BH until January 27, 2019.Visit for details.


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