Ahead of Quentin Blake’s exhibition of new works here at Shapero HQ, our Digital Content Manager, Oliver Bayliss was lucky enough to interview the legendary illustrator.
Discussing a life in art, the postures that readers get into and of course Roald Dahl, Sir Quentin's answers to Oli's questions are as wonderful and thoughtful as the drawings themselves (OB. I especially love the description of his artistic style!).
Affectionately caricaturing people who love books, An Anthology of Readers features sixty original pen, ink & watercolour drawings.
An Interview with Quentin Blake
OB. What is it about reading and the act of reading that inspired you to create the works for this show?
QB. Reading is interesting to me and as it happens it is the only thing in which I have a qualification; a Cambridge degree. But of course what is really interesting are the postures that readers get into when they have a book in their hand.
OB. Absolutely! Some of us become almost cat-like when we have a book in hand, but what was it that attracted you to literary illustrations?
QB. I started off as an illustrator working for magazines like Punch and The Spectator, but what I really wanted was to get a sequence of my own illustrations between two covers and to be able to follow a narrative through. I am still fascinated by the task which goes on offering such a variety of opportunities with David Walliams The Boy in the Dress on the one hand, and Voltaire and La Fontaine on the other.
OB. That seems like a very eclectic mix. From your vast back catalogue, do you have a favourite illustration of yours? Or possibly a favourite character that you’ve brought to life?
QB. I particularly enjoyed illustrating Clown. He is a toy invested with independent life and in fact a miniature version of a white faced mime like the one played by Jean Louise Barreau in Les Enfants du Paradis.
OB. I never knew of the connection between Clown and Les Enfants du Paradis, how fascinating! Outside of 1940s French Cinema, were there any artists or illustrators who inspired you when you were starting off?
QB. I think my main hero was the 19th-century artist, Honoré Daumier who showed that you could do strong and interesting work, even on the pages of a weekly paper. I was also inspired by André François; he showed me that you did not have to be well behaved when you were drawing and that was very liberating.
OB. François' style was wonderfully satirical - I can certainly see the influence on your work in his illustrations for Crocodile Tears! Are there any artists and/or illustrators working today whose work you admire, or are perhaps influenced by?
QB. John Burningham who is sadly no longer with us. He tells stories but his pictures are also complex improvisations and full of atmosphere.
OB. Did you always want to be an artist?
QB. I have always wanted to be an artist. But after Cambridge I actually trained to be an English teacher; I think some sort of education informs a lot of what I do.
OB. Yes, I can imagine that would be the case, especially in your illustrations for children. I've noticed that birds seem to crop up a lot in your work, especially in your upcoming exhibition with us (particular favourites of mine being the mighty orange bird leaping out of a book, and the reader in the rain beneath a tree of squawking birds!) - what is it that attracts you to birds?
QB. I am not really quite sure why I am so enthusiastic about birds. It must be partly, because they are like us, on two legs and can look round, but it is also a great advantage that they can fly so they can be separated from their background and can appear anywhere on the page that suits you.
OB. The work you did with Roald Dahl is a feature of many people's childhoods and I'm always struck by your vivid illustrations, especially on the dust-jackets – do you have a favourite book of his that you worked on together?
QB. It is hard to have one favourite although the BFG is very sympathetic and I think it may have been Roald’s favourite book but of course it is also a pleasure to draw people as dirty and spiky as The Twits. Danny the Champion of the World offers a much more naturalistic atmosphere so that the pictures have to look almost as if they were drawn from life.
OB. Ah The Twits! A personal childhood favourite of mine - they were hilariously cantankerous! So how did you and Dahl meet, and what was working with him like?
QB. We were put together by our editor, Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape for The Enormous Crocodile. Our first meetings were at the publishers and relatively formal. But when we got on to the BFG I started going down to Great Missenden and having dinner with the family when I would probably show some of my ideas about the characters and get Roald’s comments.
OB. Yet another childhood favourite. Going back to you, how would you describe your artistic style and has it changed at all over the years?
QB. I stood up to draw for forty years. Now I sit down.
OB. A suitably brilliant answer! Is there any advice you would give to budding young artists and illustrators?
QB. Draw all the time.
OB. Finally, as I work in books, I have to ask - do you have a favourite book or author?
QB. Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Cyrano de Bergerac. When you mention his name people tend to think of the play by Edmund Rostand, but Cyrano is a fascinating writer. The Voyages anticipates Gulliver’s Travels: not merely satirical but questioning ideas and assumptions of all kinds.
Quentin Blake Illustrated Books
Alongside the Quentin Blake exhibition the bookshop will also be showcasing a selection of first edition books illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Beloved by children and adults alike, the first editions of his works are now considered to be highly collectable and as such are always a feature on the shelves at 32 Saint George Street.