Until 8 July 2017
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Review by James Inkster
Renowned, of course, for his work on Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Matilda, The BFG and many more, Quentin Blake is known to us all – or, if not explicitly known, recognisable. His work is scratchy, jerky, haphazard and takes you by surprise.
“I discovered that a drawing can fulfill its purpose and still be scratchy and instinctive and badly behaved.” – Quentin Blake
Yet, with its unconventional greatness, Blake’s style illuminates the words, and the scenes live on forever. The dynamism of his dancing frog, the starkness of the “The House, the Tree and The Monkey Cage,” or the ferocity of the towering Miss Trunchbull are simply unforgettable. They float around in our memories: and so to see the original sketches, storyboards and hazy ideas is a great privilege.
The exhibition is very well constructed and feels like stepping inside Blake’s head. There is a huge, sprawling sketch of what appears to be his workspace, then there are walls loaded with ideas – anarchic and chaotic, annotated and much revised. Then there are the finished pieces; chiselled until that deliberately-accidental style is as we always see it: perfectly imperfect. Amongst the art are worded panels, where first-person asides from the man himself run like quiet commentary, giving thoughts and musings on the process of artistry and the function of fiction. For fans of Blake, or of creativity in general, these are of huge value.
For children, there are scenes from Dahl, but also from Blake’s own books like The Story Of The Dancing Frog, or his work on David Walliams’s recent book The Boy In The Dress. These all show his work at its optimistic best. Yet, whilst the drawings are indeed jubilant and lively, there are some very serious and sombre pieces: like those from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, or the illustrations from Voltaire’s Candide. This latter included a visceral portrayal of a violent execution; to see such a serious moment conveyed through a style always associated with levity and humour was uncanny, and all the more unsettling.
Aside from the displays, there are interactive sessions based on Blake’s work. These can be attended on several dates in the coming months, with such workshops as Watercolours, Line Drawing, Animation and Storytelling. Clearly, the Laing Art Gallery are endeavouring to make the most of this inspiring and enthusiastic figure – there is something for everyone.
To conclude, it is evident throughout the one hundred presented works that Blake’s skill extends beyond any one genre and mode. Whether working for himself, for the press (with his first drawing published at the age of 16 in Punch!) or for legendary writers, his work is a consistent joy to behold. At 84 years of age, this is a lifetime of talent presented beautifully.