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Exhibition Quentin Blake – doyen of children’s book illustrators

Quentin Blake: Illustrating Verse
Kirkby Gallery / House of Illustration



QUENTIN BLAKE is one of Britain’s best-loved illustrators of children’s books. His whimsical style, anarchist characters and their crazy antics have enraptured generations of children.

That said, my own daughter told me that as a child she found his illustrations “too messy, slapdash, the scribbly-looseness of it all turned me off, and all his characters seemed to have big noses, which I didn’t like.”

As an adult she now recognises his unique skill and his immense sense of fun. This may, though, simply underline the adage that it is adults who choose and buy children’s books not children themselves. And adults are probably attracted to his anarchic scenes, either reliving their own childhood or wishing they’d had one like it.

His illustrations have a sense of wild freedom; there are no walls or fences, no restrictions to the fun and mayhem his characters engender. For getting on for eight decades he has provided the illustrations for over 300 books. But, surprisingly perhaps, he has never had children of his own.

Blake read English literature at Cambridge and studied art at Chelsea School of Art, but was clearly attracted to illustration and cartoon work rather than formal painting.

On top of his full-time occupation as an artist, he is also an ambassador for indigenous rights NGO Survival International. He says: “For me, Survival is important for two reasons; one is that I think it’s right that we should give help and support to people who are threatened by the rapacious industrial society we have created; and, more generally, that it gives an important signal about how we all ought to be looking after the world.”

He illustrated those concerns in the exhibition We Live in Worrying Times, planned for last year but derailed by Covid. In watercolour, pen and ink, he gives us a somewhat apocalyptic image of our future if we are unable to deal adequately with global warming and our ongoing destruction of the environment.

Blake has also been illustrating poetry throughout his 60-year career, taking poets as far apart as Roald Dahl and William Shakespeare.

Now, the first ever exhibition dedicated to Blake’s illustrations for poetry, with works selected by the artist himself: Quentin Blake: Illustrating Verse – a touring exhibition from House of Illustration.

It brings together a selection of more than 120 of his illustrations for poetry of all kinds, from comic nonsense to poignant ballads. It celebrates Blake’s illustrations for popular nursery rhymes like The Owl and the Pussycat and poems like The Jabberwocky but also includes work for more serious poets like Sylvia Plath and TS Eliot.

“The choice of moments, and a sense of discretion about what to draw and what not to draw, is particularly important in the business of illustrating poetry,” intimated Blake.

The exhibition includes roughs, preliminary sketches and finished artworks for both modern and classical writers, from Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll to Michael Rosen and John Yeoman, as well as illustrations for Blake’s own popular poems such as Mr Magnolia and All Join In.

Kirkby Gallery in Knowsley from January 16 until April 17 2022. Free entry.


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