We sit down with Jenny Uglow, author of 'The Quentin Blake Book', to chat about the infinitely imaginative artist, his quill fashioned from a vulture’s wing feather, and his 'long, hilarious meals' with Roald Dahl.
Thames & Hudson: In your introduction to The Quentin Blake Book, you mention of Quentin that ‘He can prick pomposity like a balloon, his work charged with sympathy for lonely souls and people battling against odds…’ What is it that draws Quentin to these kinds of subjects?
Jenny Uglow: Quentin has great perceptiveness and humanity – he can see when people are worried or lonely or confused and he warms to their oddities and eccentricities. Conversely, pompous, selfish people infuriate him because he can see beyond their stupidity to the damage they do to the lives and feelings of others.
TH: Quentin’s first children’s book illustrations were created for stories by John Yeoman in the late 1950s. Can you tell us more about this fruitful collaboration?
JU: Quentin and John Yeoman have been friends since they were at school, and share a wicked sense of humour and a real respect for each other’s talents (and a love of France). Yeoman is a brilliant storyteller, and they have worked on over twenty five books, from the stories in A Drink of Water to the Fabulous Foskett Family in 2013. My favourite image of this is ‘The compilers at work on another record,’ in The World’s Laziest Duck and other Amazing Records, 1967. You can see how silly they are and how much fun they have.
TH: On Quentin and Roald Dahl’s iconic creative partnership, you mention that ‘Quentin’s line drawings brought Dahl’s creations to life in all their preposterous, diabolical oddity.’ What made their creative chemistry so strong?
JU: The partnership worked because Quentin simply responded as a reader trying to see Dahl’s creations and as a result, he often surprised him. They would puzzle over the details, the clothes, the gestures, the characters over long, hilarious meals, with Quentin scribbling drawings, late into the night. Dahl responded to Quentin’s vision, while Quentin was fascinated by Dahl’s imagination, while acknowledging that it was sometimes frighteningly harsh. They were a great double act.
TH: In 1999, Quentin became Britain’s first Children’s Laureate. Can you tell us about his National Gallery exhibition, that allowed him bring his playful worlds to life directly on the gallery’s walls?
JU: Quentin wanted children to see illustration alongside fine art, so they could relate the work seen in galleries to those they knew in picture books. When he suggested this, Michael Wilde, then at the National Gallery brilliantly proposed that he could draw on the walls, as all children want to do – and aren’t allowed. So he chose a set of works, with artists shown alphabetically, ranging from John Burningham to Goya and Paolo Uccello, and created a comical sequence of black and white figures on the walls, chatting about the odd things they find in the pictures, cleverly getting rid of any sense of art being intimidating or odd.
TH: Quentin has used numerous tools and techniques throughout his career, from pen, ink and watercolour washes, to a quill fashioned from a vulture’s wing feather. One implement that he holds dear is as simple as can be: a biro. What makes a biro so special?
JU: A biro is a recent favourite with Quentin precisely because it isn’t special. We all have ball-point pens around. When he start drawing with biros of different weights and colours he was surprised at the way the line sweeps with the hand and although it never varies in depth or intensity it can create so many different moods. You can work fast – scribbles can become faces, a squiggle can suggest a gesture, an outline can evoke a personality, shading can give depth and intensity. Above all, using a biro may give the idea to others – a typically generous Quentin Blake inspiration – so we can all have a go!
The Quentin Blake Book is a fully illustrated overview of the life and work of the universally loved artist, released ahead of his 90th birthday.
Tracing Blake’s art and career from his very first drawings – published in Punch when he was 16 – through his collaborations with writers from Roald Dahl and John Yeoman to Russell Hoban and David Walliams, to his large-scale works for hospitals and public spaces and right up to his most recent passions and projects, author Jenny Uglow presents Quentin Blake’s extraordinary body of work, with accompanying commentary by the artist himself.