Quentin Blake on ‘doing things a writer can’t do’

The illustrator of The Big Friendly GiantCharlie and the Chocolate Factory and many other books offers us a rare glimpse of his creative process. Quentin Blake: Not in Books, a special online sale, takes place 10-17 December


‘My drawings are energetic, but I am not,’ Quentin Blake says with a laugh when we catch up with him in London, which he calls home. ‘It’s vicarious. They’re all doing things I wouldn’t think of doing.’

One of the world’s best-loved illustrators, Blake has collaborated with writers including Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen, John Yeoman and, most famously, Roald Dahl. In 1999 Blake was appointed the first UK Children’s Laureate; in 2002 he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, the highest international recognition given to creators of children’s books. This was followed in 2013 by a knighthood for ‘services to illustration’, and, in 2014, admission to France’s Legion d’Honneur.

‘When I start work on a book I do roughs of everything I want to draw in it so that I get a sense of how the book goes,’ he says, describing his creative process. ‘I’ve read the book like a book, then I read it looking for these moments. When I’m doing the roughs, I’m thinking I am that person. It is like performing. The roughs are the rehearsals, in a sense, and then you have to go on and do it.’

In July 2018, 30 illustrations from Blake’s personal collection were offered in a dedicated session in our Valuable Books and Manuscripts  sale in London, while a further 148 were offered in an online-only auction, Quentin Blake: A Retrospective

The sales comprised works from the past 40 years of his career, including illustrations of characters that have captured the imaginations of generations of children, including works for The Enormous Crocodile, Dahl’s first book to be illustrated by Blake; preliminary drawings for The Big Friendly Giant, one of his best-loved creations; and children’s favourites by Dahl, including Fantastic Mr FoxCharlie and the Chocolate Factory  and James and the Giant Peach. They realised a total of £768,625.

Quentin Blake (b.1932), Birds as People #1. Pen, ink, watercolour, watercolour paper, signed. 570 x 765 mm. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. Offered in Quentin Blake: Not in Books, 10-17 December 2019, Online

The auction also included lesser-known elements of Blake’s work, including a group of pencil drawings from his 2018 London exhibition, Arrows of Love, depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow. Drawings for the Atlantic Bar at London’s J Sheekey restaurant showed its staff and patrons swimming among shoals of fish and sea creatures — life beside and under the sea being a favourite theme of Blake’s.

Throughout his career, Blake has produced a vast array of alternate likenesses for many of his most famous characters, and this fluid trial and error is central to his process. ‘I start with the face, and if that isn’t quite right I leave it and start another one,’ he says. ‘I get very concerned about whether that  is a better likeness than that — and this is how we come to have alternative versions. It’s not that I’ve done the same picture again, it’s that I’ve done more  pictures.’

And this December, more pictures are coming to Christie’s in a special online sale, Quentin Blake: Not in Books (10-17 December), which showcases his wide variety of work over the past decade. The 204 drawings of playful creatures, fantastical scenarios and unusual individuals come directly from Blake’s studio. ‘I am pleased to be able to share this collection of drawings with a wider audience,’ says Blake, ‘so that readers and collectors may be able to enjoy imagining the many stories and scenarios they could be part of.’ To view all lots see below.

Quentin Blake (b.1932), Meeting of Two Interested Readers. Pen, ink, watercolour, watercolour paper, signed. 565 x 380 mm. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Quentin Blake: Not in Books, 10-17 December 2019, Online

Ultimately, Blake says, the goal of a great illustration is to bring a key moment to life in a way that perfectly complements a text. ‘You want to try to do something that the writer can’t do. It’s nice to see it happening. Because if you can see it happening, you can look at it again whenever you feel like it.’

The works in Quentin Blake: Not in Books are are being sold to benefit Greenpeace and Survival International

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