Made famous by Roald Dahl, but hugely successful in his own right: the art of Quentin Blake

The illustrator never went to art college, but has a career spanning four decades and an instantly recognisable style that’s made him globally famous. 

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The gavel hit the soundboard with one swift movement marking the end of lot 388 in The Valuable Books and Manuscripts Sale on 11 July 2018 at Christie’s auction house. A watercolour, Charlie, Willie Wonka, and Grandpa Joe, had been sold for £50,000, more than three times its estimate (£10,000-15,000).

It was the highest ever price for a work by Sir Quentin Blake, whose career as an illustrator has spanned four decades. At 85 years old, he still illustrates with the same recognisable style that makes his work globally famous.  

Blake is primarily identified for his collaboration with Roald Dahl: his toe-curling depiction of The Witches, the graceful but unloved child Matilda, the nauseating Mr and Mrs Twit in The Twits. The two creatives were hardly the first illustrator-author partnership (think AA Milne and EH Shephard) but their first collaboration on The Enormous Crocodile (1979) ignited a working relationship which spanned almost the entirety of Dahl’s books. Dahl’s final book, Billy and the Minpins (1991) was the only children’s book Blake did not originally illustrate, but a new updated version now includes Blake’s illustrations. On 1 October, he even delighted fans of Matilda (1988) by releasing four images of her grown up, with careers including “Poet Laureate widely celebrated for her moving performance of The Trunchball Saga, an epic poem in 20,068 verses”.

Yet although Blake is synonymous with Dahl, he has also illustrated other significant works, including Arrows of Love, 18 pencil drawings depicting women avoiding or embracing Cupid’s arrow. Drawn in the 1970s and rarely seen since, Arrows of Love recently went on display in London. Blake has also worked with some of the world’s most distinguished children’s literature authors, including Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken, Michael Rosen and David Walliams. The auction had aroused much interest amongst collectors and fans of Blake, according to Sophie Hopkins, from Christie’s Books and Manuscript department. “We’ve had just as many queries from collectors who have a soft spot for characters such as Kitty-in-Boots, Quentin Blake’s fabulous protagonist created for a long-neglected Beatrix Potter work, or Mrs Armitage, the brilliant heroine of one of Quentin’s own books,” she says. 

Blake never went to art college – he studied English at the University of Cambridge – but had the drawing bug from an early age. His first sketches graced the pages of Punch when he was still in school at the age of 16. After gaining his qualifications Blake then attended life-classes at Chelsea Art School. He continued to draw for publications like Punch and the Spectator and entered the children’s book sphere when he illustrated A Drink of Water by John Yeoman in 1960. He was head of the illustration department from 1978-1986 at the Royal College of Art. 

Today, Blake is a fixture on the walls of the establishment. His works adorn many public spaces, including a large sketch at a building site at the St Pancras Eurostar terminal, commissions for the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, and an elaborate wall hanging for The Children’s Library of the Institut Français based in South Kensington, known as Bibliotheque Quentin Blake. 

As to who comes after him, it is true that there are a new generation of illustrator-author collaborations, such as Nick Sharratt and Jacqueline Wilson (the former has illustrated more than 40 of the latter’s books). Meanwhile, Korky Paul, the veteran illustrator behind Winnie the Witch, employs rough outlines and humorous details reminiscent of Blake’s work.

All the same, as the excitement over works such as Matilda suggests, there will always be a space for Blake’s work. And for authors, having their work brought to life by him is something of a golden ticket.