Interview: Quentin Blake

ESTHER HARDING talks to world-famous illustrator QUENTIN BLAKE about stereotyping, Roald Dahl’s characters and becoming successful.

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Not many illustrators can boast of such a distinctive and consistent style as Quentin Blake. Fewer still can boast of such a wide, international fan base. And yet Quentin Blake is surprisingly modest. “When I first started out, I didn’t even know I was going to make a living,” he tells me.

After graduating from Downing College with an English degree, Quentin took life-drawing classes at the Royal College of Art. He’ll be celebrating his 80th birthday next year. For 64 of those years he has been drawing. “I remember illustrating a book someone was writing, and they turned to me and said: ‘If I knew I was going to be this big, I’d have tried harder!’ Perhaps I could have had higher ambitions, but with drawing, you always think you’re lucky to be making a living.”

Quentin at a book signing

Both the consistency and the quality of the style of Quentin’s illustrations are fascinating for their energetic, almost chaotic, blending of movement and colour. I’m keen to learn about when he started making a living from illustrating. “I was drawing for a publisher and I used to send in roughs,” he explains. “Eventually the publisher got to the point of saying that sometimes the roughs are better than the actual drawings.”

Illustrators have a tendency to ‘tense up’ for the neat copy, and Quentin points out that in only sending in rough work, he was taking far less risks with style and content.

“It was partly that and partly because I realised that most of what I was doing was in black and white so I could change it that meant I became successful! I started to do a lot more drawing and became comfortable and at ease – I didn’t make so many mistakes. You get to a stage where what you draw starts to become like what you see in your head.”

Signing one of his works

Quentin admits that being always thought of as a children’s illustrator has been a struggle, as it was difficult to be appreciated for his work in other areas. “It’s like being an actor, you get typecast like the villain, and that’s something I slowly learned to work against over 20 years. I’m well established enough to resist that now.”

 Esther with the man himself

I ask Quentin what his favourite piece of work is. For someone who has been illustrating for over 50 years, finding an answer is undoubtedly a struggle. “It changes,” he says. “I’m particularly pleased with the series for the Angers Maternity Hospital in France of mothers meeting their newborn babies underwater, as I’ve got a lot of drawings like that which I’ve never been able to use.”

One of the series of drawings at Angers

Despite what he says, I will always associate Quentin Blake with my favourite Roald Dahl books. But which of Roald Dahl’s characters would he most like to be like? “There are an awful lot of them you wouldn’t want to be, but I suppose part of the fun of the books is interacting with someone you don’t want to be.” He pauses, his his answer comes with a cheeky grin: ‘The Enormous Crocodile, I think.” An excellent answer.

Photographs by Max Liu