Sir Quentin Blake’s imagination runs riot in Norfolk exhibition

Sir Quentin Blake

Sir Quentin Blake - Credit: Archant

Newly knighted illustrator Sir Quentin Blake — the man who brought to life so many Roald Dahl books — has just turned 80 and has moved to Norfolk. Celebrations include two new exhibitions in the region. IAN COLLINS reports.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I returned from lunch to find a note from a happy-go-lucky trainee journalist asking me to call the Nudist Porn Market urgently.

So I rang the given number and found myself connected to the New Diss Corn Market — except that my hand remained over the mouthpiece of the phone because I was convulsed with laughter.

I now offer that story as an 80th birthday present to the best of living British wits, Sir Quentin Blake — though it hardly matches the poem lately written and recited in his honour by the divine Joanna Lumley.

But it fits since the biggest non-London celebration for that vintage milestone now passed by our favourite cartoonist, illustrator and children's author (newly-knighted in the New Year list) has just opened in the fine art gallery formed from the former Diss Corn Market.

But while the bookshops are full of fabulous Blake characters – Mr Magnolia, Mrs Armitage, Angela Sprocket and, one of the latest, David Walliams' Mr Stink – the Norfolk gallery has a new line in very original and more than slightly unsettling prints of women with birds, strange children and stranger insects.

The artist sort of explains: 'There are two contrasting sets of etchings. One is of women and birds, and the second are multi-coloured insects – although insects with all sorts of human characteristics.

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'I made four lithographs as well of girls and dogs – the girls are making drawings they don't seem very satisfied with.

'The images don't relate to existing narratives and their stories, whatever they may be, are implied in them.'

The sharp wit of Quentin Blake found a kindred spirit in the late Ronald Searle, the man behind Molesworth and St Trinian's, who was himself the grand old man of British illustration until his death aged 91 a year ago.

Both honed a jagged, angular, scratchy, spiky style which — falling far short of that most vicious caricature wielded in the lethal, dagger-like lines of Gerald Scarfe (Blake's junior by four years) – seem to express anarchic affection and a winning humanity.

In Searle's case they also very clearly came out of personal trauma. For that station master's son from Cambridge was captured by the Japanese with the fall of Singapore and forced to toil on the Siam-Burma Death Railway.

For the gentle and withdrawn Blake — a suburban London child evacuated to the West Country during the Second World War — there surely remains a sense of personal vulnerability behind the supremely confident and irreverent penmanship.

Still a very productive artist in his creative prime, his most famous public campaign is that of Survival International – the global organisation working to leave the world's most remote indigenous peoples well alone.

He is a big believer in privacy. Plainly he needs time and space for all that work. At 16 he was sending drawings to Punch and he has never stopped image-making since then.

Emerging as a major talent in the 1960s, his first illustrated children's book was A Drink of Water, by his friend John Yeoman. Then came a perfect match with the darkly dramatic and comic stories of Roald Dahl.

Since then he has illustrated 325 books, from nursery rhymes to the Folio Society's Don Quixote, and has added the texts of 35 titles himself. For a long period he was also head of illustration at the Royal College of Art.

He won the 1980 Kate Greenaway Medal – for the best children's book illustration by a Briton – for Mister Magnolia.

And in 2005, for the 50th anniversary of the prize, he was named among the top 10 winners.

Quentin Blake – whom many will remember drawing the stories while narrating 1970s editions of telly's Jackanory – was very properly the first children's laureate, from 1999 to 2001.

He has always encouraged young people to draw and paint – or rather to keep on drawing and painting with that freedom of early childhood most of us then lose – and remains a big supporter of the annual Big Draw competition.

He is a major influence on the latest generation of successful writer-illustrators – not least on the fabulous How To Train Your Dragon books by the partly Suffolk raised Cressida Cowell.

And for himself, he believes in the art of spontaneity – of, as he said recently 'a sort of absent-mindedness when ideas think of themselves'.

Further believing in the healing powers of art, he has done a lot for hospitals and health centres. Sadness and isolation are so often his themes at the outset, but there always remains the hope of transformation in a body of work which is ultimately life-affirming.

The Diss exhibition will be followed by another, Quentin Blake: Drawn by Hand, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which will include individual works he has produced in the past decade: book illustrations, etchings, lithographs, drawings and works done for hospitals in various and contrasting media.

These works will be accompanied by a display of pens, brochures, inks, watercolours, quills and other materials from the artist's studio.

With images that have been condensed into postage stamps and blown up for a vast mural amid the (re)building site that was London's St Pancras Station, Quentin Blake has become part of our way of life.

And if Britain has given anything to the rest of world, let it be our sense of humour.

It is so good to laugh. And for a venerated octogenarian – as for children of all ages – it is also very healthy.

t The World of Quentin Blake, comprising etchings and lithographs created for the artist's 80th birthday is at Diss Corn Hall Gallery until February 2, Mon-Fri 11am-4pm/Sat 11am-2pm, free admission, 01379 652239,

t Quentin Blake: Drawn by Hand is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from February 12-May 12.