The walls of the gallery had been painted the day before and when I arrived the illustrations were already hanging. Informative text was being transferred to the walls and Quentin Blake stood beside me making some adjustments to the arrangement of his paints, brushes, sketchbooks and personal photographs for a display. With the exhibition of 24 works close to completion there was an excited atmosphere in the gallery.
Blake is still producing a great deal of work despite his age. Interviewing someone who has had such an impact on my generation as well as others was a unique experience. He is a friendly and articulate man and he spoke insightfully in response to my questions regarding the exhibition, working with authors to develop characters, and responses to his work.
This collection of illustrations is named Life Under Water – A Hastings Celebration and they were created especially for the exhibition at Jerwood Gallery. They are intimate and joyous works, painted in watercolour on paper roughly a square meter in size, depicting all manner of figures enjoying life under the sea. Speaking with Blake on the subject he explained that for him,
“Flying and swimming are very similar. It’s those sort of movements which are temporary movements, ephemeral movements. I find that very interesting. I think that’s partly because drawing is related to anatomy but doesn’t always respect it. It’s as much about gesture as it is about a three-dimensional representation of something.”
Many of the figures are involved in local events and activities, such as Hastings Pirate Day and the Chapman Brothers’ tattoo parlour show, and they swim across the paper surrounded by sea creatures. In this way the exhibition is tied to the local area, and one can tell that Hastings is a town that Blake himself has personal ties to. His signature style comes through in all these works and adapts very well to the underwater scenes. The bold and swift brush strokes were applied very skillfully; each animal, object and figure well proportioned and positioned, combining to produce a balanced whole.
In the interview I was interested to hear Blake’s approach to illustrating characters for authors.
“I try to respect the text as much as possible,” he explained, “that’s the guidebook. I think illustrating is like directing a play. The curious thing is that you have a bit of an idea of what a character looks like, partly because of what it says in the book, and then you actually find out what they look like while you’re drawing them. You develop a picture of what they’re like.”
For me the characters of Roald Dahl’s books, illustrated by Blake, were alive in my imagination; whole and rounded characters, the illustrations of which seemed inseparable from the text.
With Blake being one of the most prestigious illustrators I wanted to get his perception of the response to his work.
“I think I’ve found that people do respond to drawings.” He told me.
“What’s been very nice for me is that I think they speak to people more than I thought they did… In a way it’s a thing that art isn’t expected to do any longer… One thing I’m always really touched by is that they say it’s brought us such joy! That sort of idea is not one that I intended, it just happened.”
He proceeded to share a story with me, of one person’s response to his work.
“There was a man that wrote to me who was so ill he’d had to give up work, and in fact what he was suffering from was profound depression. He went to see a show of my work and he said he felt better! ‘I liked it,’ he said, ‘and actually it was very positive, and now I’m going to art exhibitions and so on.’ And it’s extraordinary. And a bit later he wrote to me saying ‘I’ve moved to London, I’ve got a job now.’ I got another letter from him last week. That’s an extreme example but it shows that people don’t always respond in the way you’d expect.”
I would thoroughly recommend viewing the exhibition of Blake’s work Life Under Water – A Hastings Celebration which runs from 2nd July to 6th September at Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.
By Stuart (Billy) Myles-Berkouwer