A new exhibition space for illustration has just opened in London with an inaugural show from perhaps the UK’s most popular practitioner, Sir Quentin Blake. The House of Illustration offers a chance to see many of Blake’s original drawings, paintings and sketches – and hopes to become a focal point for celebrating both the history of the artform and its future…
As an organisation (and charity) the House of Illustration has been active since 2002, when it was founded by a group of illustrators led by Blake and Emma Chicester Clark.
Since then it has helped to organise several exhibitions and education programmes, as well as establishing itself as the official archive-to-be of Blake’s enormous output of some 4,000 drawings and 250 illustrated books.
But until this week the HOI has not had a permanent home and so the space at 2 Granary Square – in the middle of the King’s Cross regeneration area and nextdoor to Central Saint Martins college – now provides a fantastic exhibition site, complete with function rooms and shop.
And an exhibition of Blake’s work is not only an appropriate way to open the new site, but one that offers fans of his a chance to see the original ink drawings and watercolours which have become so familiar from his books.
I happened to enter the exhibition from what is actually the final room on the exhibition route – and this made for quite an emotional start to the show. The ‘last’ room looks at Blake’s work for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, the author’s moving account of dealing with the death of his 18 year-old son, Eddie.
Rosen’s original email to his publisher – essentially the text for the book typed out with the subject ‘Is this a book?’ (above) – is also displayed on one of the walls.
Blake had to work hard to convey Rosen’s state of mind; the opening page is an incredible portrait of Rosen where the writer is trying to hide his sadness behind a smile – “This is me trying to look cheerful,” he writes. It’s quite an illustrative feat to pull off.
Other than an initial display case which looks at how Blake works as an illustrator (detail shown, above), the rest of the show is arranged within one large room and covers various highlights from his long career.
Interestingly, and in this context well-judged I think, only two of Blake’s collaborations with Roald Dahl are included and we see sketches and final artwork for two very different projects; Danny the Champion of the World and The Twits.
In the former, Blake adopted a more realistic approach in his drawing to match the nature of the story; while for The Twits, famously one of Dahl’s most grotesque books, the drawing style is delightfully messy; even disgusting in places.
Blake’s techniques here also served to provide extra detail to Dahls text: the close-up of Mr Twit’s food-ridden beard and a drawing of their ‘bird pie’, for example, are particularly effective (below).
Alongside each series of images is an introduction by Blake himself which sheds light on the process behind the drawings and their shaping into books.
For any illustrator, and indeed anyone interested in illustration, this is a great opportunity to see how Blake has helped to create some of the most memorable characters and scenes in visual storytelling.
And if you walk around the show in the right order, you’ll see how his talents stretch from capturing everything from outrageous silliness to heartbreaking sadness within a seemingly effortless line.