Excellent feature interview with Quentin Blake…
For someone so synonymous with children’s books, Blake is unexpectedly reticent about his own childhood, claiming to remember very little. When I ask if it was happy, he shrugs. “It was all right,” he says. Interestingly, his own volume of memoirs about his life as an artist, writer and illustrator, Words and Pictures, begins when he was 16 and successfully submitted a cartoon to Punch.
Blake’s father was a civil servant — he was a clerk for the Imperial War Graves Commission in France before Quentin was born — and his mother, Blake says, was “a housewife”. She was 40 when he was born, and his brother was 11 years older, so he felt “like an only child”. He hardly recalls his brother living with them, though they got on as adults. He went to the local primary school, then Sidcup Grammar and on to Cambridge, to read English under FR Leavis. He drew from a young age, and attended life classes after he graduated (where he would look at the models and then try to draw from memory), but his art education was “cobbled together”. His parents were supportive of his art, but “had no terms of reference really”. Their ambition for him was “that I should get a job”.
His mentors were Alf Jackson, the husband of a Latin teacher at his school and a cartoonist and Modigliani-influenced fine artist who “would talk about Punch cartoons and Michelangelo”; and Brian Robb at Chelsea School of Art, who would comment on his drawings, though Blake did not attend his classes. He says he learnt to draw by looking at draughtsmen from Daumier to George Cruikshank, and contemporary cartoonists such as André François. Blake went on to teach for 23 years at the Royal College of Art, where he was head of the illustration department for eight years.
Blake draws daily — or very nearly; it doesn’t occur to him not to. Even he does not quite know how he produces his magic. “It never gets into words. You get emotion into the picture, and the people reading it can get it out of the picture.” Blake compares the business of illustration to acting. He doesn’t like to be interrupted when drawing, but on the odd occasion when he has been, observers have said he makes the faces of the characters he is drawing. As in acting, he inhabits an idea, signals it concisely and creates a response. He loves theatre, and compares the blank page to a stage.