The illustrator Quentin Blake is uncannily like one of his own creations: tousled, bright-eyed, quizzical, and apologetic about his summer cold. He greeted me warmly and conducted me down a dimly lit hallway into his lair, a studio giving on to a leafy London square, piled high with the tools of his trade: papers teetering on plan chests, jars of brushes, palettes of paints, toppling books — all the shambolic clutter of a busy artist’s life and work.
I was there to find out about the eagerly anticipated House of Illustration, which opened this week in the old railwaymen’s house on Granary Square, that ineffably cool destination north of King’s Cross, home to Central St Martins College of Art and just over Regent’s Canal from Kings Place. Quentin Blake is both presiding genius and originator, and the opening exhibition, Inside Stories, will be devoted to his work, exploring in graphic detail how he constructs his narratives and characters. Blake, the Pied Piper of British illustrators, was appointed the first Children’s Laureate in 1999, awarded the CBE in 2005 and given a knighthood last year for services to children’s literature. But this humorous and unassuming man does so much more than produce quirky and enchanting books irresistible to children (and their parents), and this latest venture, the fruition of 12 years’ plotting and planning, fulfils a long-held dream to bring illustration out of the shadows on to centre stage.
It all started a long time ago. ‘I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was at school but the received wisdom was that you could never make a living ...I always drew, though, and when a teacher whose husband, Alfred Jackson, was a cartoonist in Punch spotted the caricatures I’d drawn of her in the margins of my exercise book she said I’d better meet him. It was like a tutorial, and he would talk about what was in Punch that week but also about Modigliani or Michelangelo or whatever. I remember him saying, “Do you ever have any ideas?”, and of course what he meant was joke ideas, so I buckled down and started sending drawings to Punch myself. Eventually they took two, and I was paid seven guineas for each.
‘I had no other art education, really, and after Cambridge, where I read English, I trained as a teacher, but I was already doing cartoons for comic books by Patrick Campbell, whom I inherited from Ronald Searle, and moved on to covers for Penguin Books (Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis), and for The Spectator, as it happens. It was all good training, as cartoons are all about sending out visual signals, and at The Spectator they never decided on the subject till the last minute so I learnt to draw on the hoof, like an actor in rep trying on a different part every week.’ His Spectator covers, from back in the days when the magazine cost all of ninepence, are gloriously witty riffs on the issues of the day.
‘I also taught illustration at the RCA for 20 years, taking over from Brian Robb, a wonderful artist who had taught me life drawing. Emma Chichester Clark, Nicola Bayley, Angela Barrett and Dan Fern were all students of mine; they went off in their various directions, but we all shared that urge to draw, the basic drive of the illustrator. But really I wanted to create my own books with their own atmospheres, to invent imaginary worlds to parody the one we live in — I’m glad the House of Illustration will go back to my books for their first show because I have been doing a lot of large-scale work in hospitals lately, which grew out of museum projects like Tell me a Picture, when Michael Wilson told me to draw on the walls of the National Gallery — something you don’t forget,’ he adds with a chuckle.
So how did the House of Illustration come about? Like most of the best ideas, over supper one evening with close friends, illustrator Emma Chichester Clark and journalist Joanna Carey. Blake had a lifetime’s work behind him, stockpiled in portfolios in various corners — but over the years he inevitably lost track of various originals, ‘so when they were required for reprints, I would find myself forging my own work, five years on’. The archive comprises more than 4,000 original drawings and 250 books, and it needed a home. As Emma recalls, ‘We imagined a church hall somewhere in Hammersmith, with a nice lady sitting at the door letting people in to rummage around.’ One pictures a quintessential Quentin Blake scene complete with batty old lady with pince-nez and a bird in her hat, and feral children creating havoc behind the scenes. But when Robin Chichester Clark and David Pease from the Arvon Foundation came on board as trustees, along with Christopher Frayling, Joanna Lumley and various other luminaries, the stakes started rising, and rose fast. Committees were convened, a fundraising campaign unleashed, events organised, exhibitions toured, premises secured and a director procured, with the generous endowment of Blake’s work underpinning it all. The new home in Granary Square has many advantages, not least being next door to Eurostar,as Blake’s reputation in France, where he has a house and has worked busily for many years, is if anything even brighter than over here.
Far from being a vanity project focused on Blake, however, it has from the start embraced illustrators from all over the world, in any media, from any century. The exhibition In All Directions that toured in 2006 included works by Tiepolo, Hokusai, Ardizzone and Ronald Searle. George Cruikshank and Honoré Daumier are particular favourites of Blake and, as he points out, painters such as Bonnard were also brilliant graphic artists, with an instinctive sense of the difference between illustration, essentially intimate in scale and inextricably linked to narrative, and fine art, which need be neither. No. 2 Granary Square aims to be, quite simply, the home of illustration, ‘from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design’, and will be enticing people of all sizes to its doors to look and learn, enjoy what they find there, and try it out for themselves.
I ask Quentin what he hopes for it in ten years’ time. ‘I hope it will be a catalyst, for illustrators, for schools, for children from all over the country and beyond. If I’m honest, I hope it’ll be three times as big — the natural place to discover narrative art altogether.’ If anyone can conjure such a vision it is Quentin Blake, with a few deft strokes of his inspired pen.