Walking into the Oxford Union, the first thing we noticed about Quentin Blake was the little white plimsolls poking from underneath the table. Slightly unconventional considering he was wearing a suit and it was snowing outside.
Delightful though it was to see the curious choice of footwear, it was not entirely unsurprising, as children’s writer Roald Dahl used to note this feature of his wardrobe: “here’s old Quent, he’s going out for dinner in his plimsolls!'” When speaking to Blake, it’s hard to keep eye contact, as his hands seem to constantly sketch out his thoughts. His hands are just as expressive as his words. That, perhaps, is the secret to his success as a popular illustrator for almost half a century.
Most renowned for his collaboration with Dahl, Blake illustrated more than twenty of his books. Collaboration is, indeed, the right word for their working relationship, as his drawings have become synonymous with Dahl’s work. In fact, editions illustrated by other artists have been greeted with disdain, while the characters in film adaptations of the books stray from Blake’s depictions at their peril.
Having been put together by their shared publisher, what started as a working relationship eventually developed into a close friendship held together by their shared vision of the finished product; “with the Dahl books I would take them down and see what he thought of them. He mostly said ‘Quent always gets it right’. I didn’t quite always get it right” Blake says, in a typically modest fashion.
Blake’s persistence in doing his character’s justice is what makes his and Dahl’s style unique. By the end of the book, the combination of story and drawings means that you are fully acquainted with all aspects of the character, something which Blake himself discovered.
“By the time you’re doing the final illustrations of the book you feel you know what that person looks like” he says. “If you look at the rough drawings you’ve started off with, you realise they weren’t quite like that; it’s as if you’ve got to know the characters by drawing them”.
Blake’s drawings are notorious for their scribbled nature. “I think I came to it almost by accident really, by doing rough drawings and finding they were better than the finished drawings,” Blake says, noting how the spontaneous quality of his work is its strength. He describes the process involved in his drawings, where he begins with an initial sketch, which evolves into the finished piece- complete yet nevertheless maintaining the endearing appeal of his images.
Quentin Blake is always drawing, the sketchy nature of his work ideal for constantly scribbling down new creations. In fact, The Life of Birds, one of his favourite books, was created from a sequence of random drawings: “and then I thought ‘perhaps I’ll just make a book out of it'” he muses.
As we speak to him, we can understand that his restless hands are permanently at work at what he repeatedly refers to as ‘the cooking process’, and it is for this reason that we can believe the image of his jotting pad beside his phone that he describes. “I’ve got a whole collection of stuff,” he says, “I don’t know if they’ll ever get published, called Telephone drawings”.
Blake, however, is never out of work, having written many of his own books, and recently illustrated David Walliams’ new book, The Boy in the Dress. When we bring it up, he smiles wryly, saying “it’s nice to be able to illustrate for somebody who’s half your age!”
On mentioning the controversy surrounding the children’s book, which seems to imply a level of autobiography, thus suggesting that Walliams himself, a proclaimed lothario, was himself struggling with his sexuality. Blake smiles: “I didn’t know there was any”. We leave it at that, not wanting to embark upon a transvestite-based conversation with this sweet plimsoll clad man.
Unlike other artists who try and justify their skill through treating their work as culturally significant, Blake is keen to deny any great talent on his part; “You can’t think about it, you just have to start drawing and seeing what you discover.” His keenness to bring art to the masses has led to his participation in the annual Big Draw, and his close association with a new museum of illustrations based in Dulwich.
We ask Blake what else he has lined up for the future. With Dahl’s granddaughter, Sophie’s new writing career, we suggest that he might be tempted to continue the Dahl-Blake tradition with the inspiration of the BFG. “Well I’d certainly consider it! I think she’s making out alright with the illustrator she’s got actually!”
He is, however, eager to continue his work on literary classics. Having enjoyed great success with Quentin Blake’s Christmas Carol, (“that title was not my idea!” he is quick to establish), he would be keen to try some more Dickens (“I’m a great admirer”, he says).
After that, who knows what to expect from a man with a distinctive drawing style and a catalogue of much-loved books which are a permanent feature of most people’s shelves. Quentin Blake has been a part of the lives of millions of people, and he has no intention of stopping at the grand age of seventy six.