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

As Christie’s offers both a live auction and an online sale of 178 works from his personal collection, the illustrator of The Big Friendly GiantCharlie and the Chocolate Factory and many other books offers us a rare glimpse of his creative process

‘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.

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), Charlie, Willie Wonka and Grandpa Joe. Watercolour, pencil, watercolour paper, signed. 760 x 565 mm. Estimate £10,000-15,000. Offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London on 11 July

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), Charlie, Willie Wonka and Grandpa Joe. Watercolour, pencil, watercolour paper, signed. 760 x 565 mm. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London on 11 July

‘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.’

On 11 July, 30 illustrations from Blake’s personal collection are to be offered in a dedicated session in our Valuable Books and Manuscripts  sale in London, while a further 148 are to be offered in an online-only auction, Quentin Blake: A Retrospective, from 3-12 July. The sales comprise works from the past 40 years of his career, including illustrations of characters that have captured the imaginations of generations of children. Highlights include works for The Enormous Crocodile, Dahl’s first book to be illustrated by Blake, and preliminary drawings for The Big Friendly Giant, one of his best-loved creations. These are presented alongside further children’s favourites by Dahl, including Fantastic Mr FoxCharlie and the Chocolate Factory  and James and the Giant Peach.

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), The Chef. Pen, ink, watercolour paper, signed, 195 x 280 mm. Estimate £300-500. Offered in Quentin Blake A Retrospective, from 3-12 July at Christie’s, online

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), The Chef. Pen, ink, watercolour paper, signed, 195 x 280 mm. Estimate: £300-500. Offered in Quentin Blake: A Retrospective, from 3-12 July at Christie’s, online

The auction also includes 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 show 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.’

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), Dragon Reading to a Group of Children. Pen, ink, watercolour, watercolour paper, signed. 330 x 450 mm. Estimate £1,800-2,500. Offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London on 11 July

Quentin Blake (b. 1932), Dragon Reading to a Group of Children. Pen, ink, watercolour, watercolour paper, signed. 330 x 450 mm. Estimate: £1,800-2,500. Offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s in London on 11 July

Looking back, he admits that his final selections might be different today than they were years ago. ‘Sometimes after I’ve done it I can’t even tell later why I’ve chosen the one I did — and sometimes I think I’ve chosen the wrong one!’

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 from these sales are being sold to benefit House of IllustrationRoald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity and Survival InternationalQuentin Blake: A Retrospective  will be on view and open to the public from 7 to 10 July at Christie’s London. Estimates range from £200 to £10,000.