100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake @ the House of Illustration

Quentin Blake was the moving force behind the campaign to create a gallery dedicated solely to the art of illustration, which resulted in the House of Illustration being opened in 2014.

For this reason the third and smallest of the gallery spaces in the House of Illustration is always dedicated to a small, rotating display of some aspect of Blake’s work – for example the charming exhibition of his black-and-white pen drawings inspired by Valentine’s Day, which was on display back in the spring.

However, for this exhibition Blake takes over the main gallery as well, for a major retrospective of his large, non-illustrative art in oil paints, pastels and watercolour spanning 50 years. Because – it turns out – alongside the book and other illustrations which have made his name and career, Blake never stopped being fascinated by, and painting, the human figure, mainly for his own pleasure, as this show makes abundantly clear.

Most of the works have never been seen before and I found them stunning. It’s a small, intimate space, the House of Illustration, and I felt it perfectly proportioned to bring out the intimate and often sensuous nature of these paintings.

The exhibition is hung in chronological order and the wall labels give copious insights into Blake’s working life, from his earliest years as a student in the 1950s through to the 1990s.

Room one

Room 1 explains that after finishing university Blake went back to live with his parents in Kent, commuting up to London for life studies classes once or twice a week. He tells us that he made great efforts to use shading to record the volume, balance and stance of the figures. But he also got into the habit of completing the life study and then, turning away from the model, drawing what he could remember – the essential features, as it were.

The twenty or so early pen, ink and wash drawings from the early 1960s are all of nude women in various poses, in arty studios, accompanied by potted plants, easels, chairs and sofas and, in quite a few, by birds. Uncanny to see many of Blake’s later visual motifs appearing so early.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

What comes over is the slightly scrappy or scratchy sensuousness of many of them. Naked women lying back, leaning forward, themselves painting or sketching, thinking, posing – their full creamy thighs often the most physically realised part of the image, the quickly-drawn, pointy faces a kind of counterpoint to the smoothness of the thighs – and the little pouting breasts a sort of scratchy afterthought.

Main room

When you move along to the main gallery, you are suddenly confronted by works from the 1960s. Blake had moved into his own flat in London, and now had hardboard and canvas to work on.

The change is astonishing. While the subject is still female nudes, the treatment is wild and splotchy. He now worked with commercial house painters’ brushes and you can see it in these large paintings, covered with thick sprawls and daubs of industrial paint. They are vivid and powerful but remind me a bit too much of Frank Auerbach and the other School of Mud artists, one of the few groups of artists I actively dislike.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Also in this room are smaller scale drawings of female nudes, done in with thick charcoal, with more blurring and heavy shading, than in the room of earlier work. Giving a much more full-bodied and rich visual impression.

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

The long gallery

It’s the next room, the long room in the main gallery, which really took my breath away. On all four walls and then on both sides of a central stand, are forty or so oil paints (and some pencil and wash works) from the 1970s and 80s.

As Blake explains in the very illuminating video which is shown in an alcove off to one side, illustrations are tied to a narrative and Blake has proved himself a master of illustrating a wide variety of stories.

But in this, his private work, he was able to experiment with – basically the same motif, a nude woman – in countless forms and variations, in particular experimenting with scale (some of the paintings are enormous) and, above all, experimenting with colour.

First you sketch out your human figure lying, sitting or reclining. But what happens if you paint her legs blue and her chest yellow? What happens if you use variations on one tone throughout?

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

What happens, as he mentions in the video, if the outline all flows in one direction but then you deliberately paint bars of colour across those lines, at odds with the flow? What kind of visual and emotional responses do you get?

The answer is, in the best of them, a very strong, dynamic visual impact.

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

The results of this restless experimentation are stunning. Not all of them are great, but I found it genuinely difficult to tear myself away from a handful of what I thought were masterpieces. I wandered round the exhibition and then came back to stand in front of them again.

There are yellow figures, and orange figures (thoughtfully arranged together along the south wall, as per two illustrations above), deep mud-brown figures (in the first, Auerbach, room) – but it was in this big gallery that I was blown away by a handful of enormous nudes done in deep, dark midnight blue.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Reproduction can’t convey how huge and powerful this painting is in the flesh. Looming over the viewer, I thought it depicts a naked human figure turning and running, though the friend I went with thought it was a woman sitting in one of those groovy 1970s hanging chairs.

What do you think?

In my reading I am blown away by the a) dynamism of the pose and b) the incredible use of colour, the deep blacks and blues of the background and figure, strangely highlighted by fleeting splotches of white and green and red. What a fantastically powerful, intuitive use of raw primal colours.

Third room

The third and final room of the main gallery contains a display of work from the 1980s and 90s in which Blake brings together his different approaches to painting and to drawing. The works in this room combine line drawing with colour washes in watercolour and pastel.

They are much mellower than the oil paintings, but still full of interesting experiments with colour and the emotional impact of colour. I was very taken by a sketched nude coloured entirely in yellow, and others coloured solely by variations of turquoise.

What happens if..? What if you colour it so…? What effect does a wash of yellow along the back have…?

It’s humorous and piquant to see him handle and experiment with colour so confidently, so blithely, these watercolours are light and airy..

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake. Photo by the author

Big blues

But it was the Big Blue Oils that had taken possession of my soul. I strolled round the small space again – sat and watched the video again, admired the early sketches again… but found myself being pulled back into the big room to stand in front of the handful of huge, midnight blue paintings – which just took me to a completely different place.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Summary

Starting gently with early drawings which remind you of his lovely illustrations, 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake then takes you on a thrilling journey into the possibilities of painting – via the thick impasto sludge of the early 60s, on towards the light yellow watercolours of the 1990s, with side dishes of thick charcoal drawings – but it is the middle years and the middle room which seemed to me to have struck a perfect balance — heavy blue oils, but handled with a lightness and vibrancy and confidence with colour which dazzle.

And which take you to a place of almost visionary intensity – wholly unexpected from the master of the airy, humorous children’s drawings which we all know and love.

What a revelation!


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Quentin Blake: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration contains three galleries. The main one is currently hosting an overview of the career of designer and fabric-maker Enid Marx (1902-1998). Through the double doors to one side of the reception area-cum-shop is a corridor leading to the south gallery, currently hosting a display of work by Christy Burdock.

And leading off this corridor is the small and quirky Quentin Blake Gallery. Blake gets a space to himself because he was the lead instigator of the campaign to get a gallery opened devoted solely to illustrators, and thus the founding patron of the House of Illustration.

The 'moon' section of the display of Quentin Blake's illustrations for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun at the house of Illustration

The ‘moon’ section of the display of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun at the House of Illustration. Note the dark night-time wallpaper!

The Quentin Blake Gallery at House of Illustration

To quote the museum blurb:

The Quentin Blake Gallery at House of Illustration is the permanent gallery of the UK’s most celebrated illustrator. Changing exhibitions are drawn from Blake’s own collection as well as his unparalleled personal archive of over 35,000 works, offering a unique insight into his contribution to art, education and public life, as well as his own creative practice.

The space

The Quentin Blake Gallery turns out to be a tiny but stylishly presented L-shaped room. It is currently hosting a display of 25 drawings Blake made to illustrate the early science fantasy story, Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by the 17th century libertine, poet and playwright, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Voyages to the Moon and The Sun © Quentin Blake

Voyages to the Moon and The Sun © Quentin Blake

Blake first illustrated the text for The Folio Society in 1991. Now he’s revisited the book and added some more illustrations for a new edition released this year. The exhibition displays a selection of Blake’s humorous drawings for both editions.

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun was first published in Paris in 1657. The main character, also named Cyrano, travels to the Moon, is imprisoned on Earth and then escapes to the Sun, where he is put on trial by its resident birds. The wall labels quote Blake as saying:

What attracted me first of all to Cyrano de Bergerac’s book was the multiplicity of things to draw – of unexpected things to draw. But that is the nature of the book itself. It is a precursor to Gulliver’s Travels, but where Jonathan Swift is bent on satire Cyrano is interested in everything and questions everything. In the mid-17th century he describes the audio book, wonders if plants have feelings, and is rocket-launched to the Moon. Everyone should know him.

What is not to love and adore about Blake’s scratchy, quirky, vivid and always good-humoured illustrations?

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun by Quentin Blake

Illustration for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

Idle thoughts

FLYING AND FALLING Blake delights in depicting people falling. A moment’s reflection makes you realise that when (cartoon) people are falling they can be depicted in absolutely any posture, as any combination of windmilling limbs you fancy and with any number of possible expressions on their faces. Not only is falling a kind of ultimate dream or fantasy, from the point of view of the viewer, but for the artist it offers limitless permutations.

Falling acrobat by Quentin Blake

Falling acrobat © Quentin Blake

BIRDS Blake has a special affinity with birds. Not only can they fly (a major preoccupation) but they come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. Big ones can be super-powerful, like the four eagles we see carrying Cyrano through the air. Or they can be small and pert, like a small parrot which is wearing a crown in one of the pictures, and – since Cyrano appears to be bowing to it – is presumably the King of the Birds.

Or birds can just be weird and wonderful, like the ostrich we see Cyrano riding. You can do a lot with birds!

Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

Illustration for Voyages to the Moon and the Sun © Quentin Blake

The House of Illustration takes an impressive amount of effort to dress the Blake Gallery appropriately to each exhibition. The previous show was based on Valentine’s Day and so the walls were painted a vivid pink.

Here – given the dual nature of the subject – a voyage to the moon and a separate voyage to the sun – the two parts of the L-shaped room have been painted different shades of blue, dark for the night-time moon, lighter for the daytime sun.

The 'Sun' wing of the Quentin Blake exhibition at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The ‘Sun’ wing of the Quentin Blake exhibition at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Captions, please

I have one niggle. The gallery has gone to a lot of trouble with the wall colour, and with printing onto the walls emblems of moon and sun, and also some evocative quotes from the de Bergerac story.

What was lacking, what I would sorely have loved, was a sentence or two describing which part of the narrative each picture was illustrating. Explaining what was going on. As it is, the drawings have no names, titles or explanations whatsoever. I’d like to have known just why Cyrano was being carried off by four eagles, whether it really was the King of the Birds he was bowing to, and so on.

Well, maybe I’ll have to buy the book to find out.

This is a neat, imaginative and – as always- humorous little display. How can you fail with Quentin Blake? £7.50 gets you admission to this, and the Enid Marx, and the Christy Burdock exhibitions. Excellent value!


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

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