Quentin Blake in his studio April 7 2014
The artist in his studio (Jillian Edelstein) © Jillian Edelstein

The Big Friendly Giant he is not: more like the Small Friendly Elf, tufty-haired, white-shod and beaming. But Quentin Blake, now an inexhaustible 81, has been the deliverer of sweet exuberance for so long that it may come as a shock to those visiting the show of his work opening at the new House of Illustration in King’s Cross, London, next month, to discover that he can also do dark, deep and brutal.

Cover illustration by Quentin Blake, exclusively for FT Weekend Magazine
Cover illustration by Quentin Blake, exclusively for FT Weekend Magazine (Quentin Blake) © Quentin Blake

Many of the illustrations he has drawn for Voltaire’s Candide fully match the philosopher’s determination to turn hearty chuckle into mirthless cackle. Dr Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, who despite a procession of slaughters and rapes will not be shaken from his optimistic dogma that this is “the best of all possible worlds”, gesticulates inanely in Blake’s drawing over the mangled bodies and debris of the Lisbon earthquake, while ignoring his protégé pinned beneath the masonry. A stain of bloody light blooms on the horizon. Another image, a little masterpiece of contemporary art, equally faithful to Voltaire’s mordant verdict on the human comedy, summons Blake’s inner Goya, depicting a victim of the Inquisition’s auto-da-fé swinging from a rope while a trio of canting friars roll their eyes to heaven. Blake’s animals are not invariably Giraffe, Pelly and Cuddly. A recent lithograph series, “Girls and Dogs”, features enormous ravening hounds, heaps of carnivorous mange, squatting by the frail bodies of adolescents.

This is not to say that the octogenarian Blake has withdrawn into a cave of morbid gloom. His show, Inside Stories, will not be short on joy. Among the nine sets of illustrations are the Dancing Frog, hoofing (or webbing) with Astaire and Rogers, the wordless, funny-sad Clown, inspired by Jean-Louis Barrault’s mime in Les Enfants du Paradis; How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (“a parable about education, really”) and two of the collaborations with Roald Dahl: The Twits, drawn with a grubby-stubby, bristly-gristly manner befitting its stinky subjects, and Danny the Champion of the World, which by comparison is delicately documentary.

When he shows me round the House of Illustration on a wet morning, Blake is the picture of cheerful energy. Initially, he explains, it was intended to be somewhere to show the originals of his illustrations, a place “as it were with my name on it . . . I’m not frightened by the word museum, though some people are.” Someone then pointed out that, given the way the world is, the institution was more likely to be funded if it didn’t have just one person attached to it. And, despite its name giving off a faint whiff of Petrograd collectivism, the House of Illustration conveys its multipurpose character: as exhibition space in three generous galleries washed by the milky light of north London; rooms for lectures and seminars and workshops; a place shared by working artists and a public avid for the magic of the illustrator’s mind and hand. Walking around the empty, handsome house, as students slope to their benches at the adjoining Central St Martins school of art and the cooks start frittering their chickpeas in the neighbouring restaurants, it already feels like a sure hit, another gem to add to London’s bottomless jewel box of art.

Quentin Blake's illustration of 'The Enormous Crocodile'
'The Enormous Crocodile' (Roald Dahl/Puffin Books) © Quentin Blake

Yet somehow “illustration” seems too weak a term to apply to paintings and drawings which at their strongest are not just auxiliaries of a text but integral to it, a full partner in the creative play between word and image. So many of those pictures have made not just the British literary imagination, but the sense of what our shared country looks, sounds and feels like. It is impossible to imagine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s monster loony Queen of Hearts or the towering titfer on the Mad Hatter. Pickwick and Micawber belong to Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) almost as much as to Dickens, just as Toad and Pooh bluster and mutter according to the drawn lines of EH Shepard. But when I ask Blake whether those books and their illustrations were part of his own childhood, he tells me that he only got to see them when he was a teenager: “I thought now this is a good time to read them.” Maybe he was right.

He himself has never married; never wanted children. And he bridles a little at the sentimental assumption that because his books are full of the snot-nosed happy mayhem of kids he must somehow identify with them. “Everyone asks me that. Look, I like children. And I like telling stories. But I really like drawing.”

We sit in the temple of inspired clutter that is Blake’s studio – an eruption of paints, inks, brushes, paper, books. He tells me about discovering at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School how much he loved drawing, though when an art teacher ordered the boys to make “rhythmic marks”, he says, “You were supposed to get something out of it; all I could get was octopuses.” The first thing he saw, walking into his still-life exam, were “little ziggurats of green apples”, a dispiriting prospect until he noticed an alternative, much more to his taste. “Thank God for that lobster.”

Quentin Blake with Simon Schama
Quentin Blake with Simon Schama (Jillian Edelstein) © Jillian Edelstein

Recognising a precocious talent, Alfred Jackson, the husband of his Latin teacher and himself a cartoonist, asked the 14-year-old Quentin if he had any ideas. “He meant jokes but I didn’t know what an idea was.” Jackson encouraged Blake to send in drawings to the humour magazine Punch, from whom he received the laconic response: “Not quite.” Jackson’s kindly verdict was: “That means send some more.” And eventually, at the age of 16, Quentin Blake’s cartoons appeared in a national magazine. He brushes them off these days as awkwardly stilted, and those that survive are guffaw-challenged even by the genteel standards of Punch. “As soon as I knew something was meant for print, I tightened up. First they were published. I only learnt to draw afterwards!” Blake laughs at the memory, adding, “Even then I knew the roughs were better than the finished drawing” – an early intimation that his strength would lie in a scribbly line that preserved the loose energy of the uncalculated hand, as free “as handwriting”.

After Cambridge university he went to study with Brian Robb at the Chelsea School of Art, who drew densely hatched, strangely affecting pictures for Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. “He was like [Edward] Ardizzone, only more eccentric, the ideal person to do Tristram Shandy since he was, in fact, just like that himself.” There was, Blake says, dropping one of his many poetically focused insights, “an element of dusk in them”. Not surprisingly, Thomas Rowlandson, the Regency caricaturist who specialised in tumbling pratfalls and amorous romps, registered with a bolting hand, is a favourite. And he loves the backhand affability of Hogarth in works such as “Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn”. “It’s supposed to be making fun of them. They’re degraded in their awful hut but they are discreetly transformed, taking on the parts they act, becoming wonderful.”

Blake comes straight out of this 18th-century tradition of rococo mischief, the arabesque ride through the storyline. I ask him if he ever thought of painting full-time? He tells me that he didn’t think he could make a living as a painter and then, more importantly, that his instinct was always for the marriage of words and image, the connections that propel a tale forwards. Though everyone who loves his work will have their own laugh-out-loud moments – I can’t decide between the outstretched limbs and elated eyes of the frog soaring above the corps de ballet or the upturned snout of the cheese-dwelling rat (from his illustrations for La Fontaine’s Fables), hypocritically deploring his inability, alas, to spare a morsel for his beleaguered fellow rodents – Blake doesn’t think of himself as a humorist.

Quentin Blake's illustrations for 'Candide'
Illustrations for 'Candide' (The Folio Society) © Quentin Blake

“The humour is a by-product [of the story]. You draw the scene, what people are doing, their reaction to it, and if it’s funny, it comes out. There are certain books where you play it for laughs but it’s always more interesting in a dramatic situation.” And there is a touch of the playful ghoul in some of his best work. Another of the La Fontaine drawings, of the man who loved his cat so much he married her – which is fine until one night a mouse gets into the bedroom – has her leaping naked and pointy-toothed from the bed to squash her prey in her fist so hard that blood spurts from its body.

Though Blakeans may think of their hero in his rumbustiously adorable mode – Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, or the kids running for cover in his alphabet book where N for (Cyrano-Pinocchio strength) Nose is about to let fly with a nuclear sneeze – he resists fiercely the possibility of type-casting and embraces every chance he gets to change the mood music. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was one of the most dramatic of those challenges. Rosen had gone through the worst misery known to humans, losing his 18-year-old son to meningococcal septicaemia. The book was his attempt to cope.

“It’s extraordinary he could write it. He sent it to Walker Books. They didn’t know if it was a book but they sent it along to me . . . You respond to something like that differently, on two levels, emotionally one way and professionally another. The problem is so interesting. How do you do it without it being completely gloomy? But he [Rosen] gives you the words – ‘This is a picture of me trying to look cheerful, actually I’m very sad but people don’t like that.’” And somehow, by a miracle of empathy, Blake makes the thin mask of cheerfulness reveal the depths of suffering behind it.

Blake had worked with Rosen before, on books of his poems, and had actually drawn pictures of his son. “Eddie, his name was. I’d never met him but I’d drawn him from imagination. In a way I was glad I hadn’t met him as it would have been too much.” He managed “an element of humour” even in the misery, as Rosen wanted – a sense of the steady beat of indifferent routine, “trains going past, other people getting on with their lives”, the struggle to be part of all that ever again.

An image from 'The Twits', one of Blake’s many successful collaborations with the author Roald Dahl
An image from 'The Twits', one of Blake’s many successful collaborations with the author Roald Dahl (Roald Dahl/Puffin Books) © Quentin Blake

But it was the long tall streak of demonic genius, Roald Dahl, with whom, despite also working happily with Russell Hoban (Najork) and John Yeoman (The Wild Washerwomen), Blake will always be most closely associated. They were the ultimate odd couple, the writer fiendish to the edge of sinister, notoriously cantankerous, the illustrator a power-pack of benign creativity, the virtuoso of the human comedy: Doctor Dark and Professor Bright. “We weren’t the same kind of person,” Blake says in a massive understatement, “but that was good” – which, since the outcome of the volatile mix was literary and pictorial gold, is indisputably true.

In 1975, when they began to work together, Dahl had not written illustrated books but his new publisher Tom Maschler suggested he try a picture book and sent Blake The Enormous Crocodile. “It was still a very long text,” Blake says, summoning the patient smile he evidently needed for those years. “We got along OK,” he says. “But when we did meet it was always at the publisher’s.”

Then came The BFG. Maschler thought the book would need at best a dozen or so pictures. Blake duly sent them off, to get the response: “He’s not happy.” The reason was that Dahl, unlike Maschler, was expecting many more images and “thought I wasn’t pulling my weight”. Over three days, Blake drew vignettes for each of the 24 chapters. “He’s still not happy,” Maschler said. Dahl wanted even more. “So we went back and started all over again. I have a whole set of drawings [for The BFG] that were never printed. Then he listed the scenes he decided he wanted illustrated; I went down to Great Missenden [Dahl’s home] and we talked it over.” Without being planned, everything improved. The face of the BFG, originally “more clown-like”, became almost graceful, notwithstanding the elephant ears. “It all came out in the cooking.” I press Blake a little on the uglier side of Dahl’s prejudices. “I don’t think he liked introspection. He wanted things to be practical.” There were surprises in the books, he reminds me, above all at the end of The Witches, when the child changed permanently into a mouse declares to his grandma that this is all right since he doesn’t want to live longer than her – a moment full of tenderness.

A typically joyful image from his book 'The Story of the Dancing Frog'
A typically joyful image from his book 'The Story of the Dancing Frog' (Quentin Blake/Red Fox/Random House) © Quentin Blake

You have the feeling that kindness comes as naturally to Blake as breathing, and that much of his work is borne along by a belief that delight is the best therapy for whatever ails us. Recent work – “some of the most satisfying I have ever done” – has been for hospitals. Pictures for the public spaces and bedrooms of a geriatric hospital feature young and old together, an elderly dancer with one hand in the air, the other on her walking stick. Other paintings have been made for a hospital for eating disorders, one featuring a girl at the open window of her room, feeding crumbs to the birds on the sill: “Lots of those patients are known to be very good at helping others to eat.” If a maternity hospital in Angers despairs of the “sad corridor” taking newborns from delivery room to intensive care – call for M. Blake, who will supply tristesse-banishing murals of naked mothers and babies frolicking underwater amid the fishes.

No saint could produce the universe of visual mischief that is his repertoire. But he doesn’t have it in him to deliver the sting of cruelty. When, at the end of Candide, Pangloss, looking like a decrepit snail, is still droning on about the best possible world and Candide responds, “That may very well be but it is time to cultivate our garden,” the artist has the younger man looking down at the seedling cradled in his hands, while forbearance is traced on his sweet face with a single, perfectly economical stroke of Quentin Blake’s enchanted pen.

‘Inside Stories’ runs from July 2 to November 2 at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross London N1C 4BH (houseofillustration.org.uk). Opening times: 10am-6pm. Entry: £7.70/£5.50/£4.40 adults/concessions/children

This article was amended to reflect that Dickens’s illustrator for The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield was Hablot K Browne rather than George Cruikshank

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