100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake (Catalogue Review)
Tate Publishing in association with the House of Illustration, 2018
Quentin Blake is a prolific illustrator and one of our most popular and easily recognisable artists. His work has enhanced the writing of many distinguished authors, most notably Roald Dahl, and he is himself the author of several books for children. Blake’s drawings are deceptively simple in that they have a surety of line perfectly suited to the medium in which he excels. He emotionally engages us with his very economical figurative images, while enhancing the text with which he is working. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to find that he has also been occupied throughout his career with a different kind of art, requiring another skill set altogether. None of the works in this book—which accompanies the exhibition at the House of Illustration, a small gallery in London of which Blake was a founding member— have ever been seen in public before.
Alongside his work as a highly original and successful book illustrator, from the very beginning Blake seems to have been experimenting with ambitious works on canvas and paper, using oils, ink, and watercolour. The book shows 100 of these, ranging from the earliest (dated in the 1950s) through to the 1990s. All are untitled, but are clearly figurative studies in the various media, as one might expect from an artist so adept in line representations of the human form.
These are not tiny sketches. Some measure more than a metre square, and their sheer size allows the artist more freedom of expression than does the restricted context of the printed page. Naturally, given the size of this collection, the quality is variable, but when Blake seems to have mastered both the materials and the available space, the results are spectacular. A number of works here are more than capable of standing alongside anything produced in England during the same period, and I feel certain that some would now be on display in our national galleries had the artist allowed them to leave his studio.
The very first illustration in the book dates from the 1950s, an oil study on hardboard (used presumably because the artist could not afford canvas at the time). In the centre is a female figure, flanked by what appear to be two stuffed birds. She might be in the studio of Blake’s art college, where inanimate objects were drawn alongside the life models, but the dark background makes the precise location unclear. What is apparent, however, is the figure’s delicacy, in stark contrast to the dark purple background and the deep red washes of the birds. It is a haunting depiction, with the splashes of blue and white on and around the central figure suggesting a moment frozen in time. There are possible references to both Degas and Ingres in the way that the figure seems to be emerging into the space from the grey foreground. This is an image of great quality, which improves with repeated viewing.
Other works are less rewarding. There are ink drawings on paper that are no more than preliminary explorations, perhaps of interest for his development as an illustrator: hands and feet in particular are roughly sketched, a typical Blake characteristic. There is also a series of obviously experimental monotype prints from the mid-1960s, the thickness of the ink figures contrasting starkly with his usual subtle fine lines. The roughhewn shapes have human form, but are devoid of context or emotional content. Even when two or three feature together in the same plate, there is no connectivity between them; these are purely studies of shape and form, examples, perhaps, of the artist exploring the medium’s potential. The same can be said of the wet pastel drawings from the same period. In these the strong mastery of line is again evident, and the influence of Degas can be clearly seen.
The book and exhibition both close with a series of oil and watercolour studies which are strikingly beautiful. The late watercolours in particular are simple, but truly lovely. Blake uses colour to define not only shape but also shadow and light. He has an immediately apparent lightness of touch. As with the earlier works discussed, the more one studies these later plates, the more rewarding they become. These intriguing studies of the human form are both emotive and economical, a combination which is not easy to achieve. As with many of Blake’s familiar book illustrations, the simplicity of line and form are deceptive, for they hide a mastery of form which can only be admired.
This volume is to be recommended, and not just to those who appreciate Blake’s book illustrations — it contains figure studies of genuine quality that reveal Blake to be an artist of unsuspected range. One hopes that the exhibition and its accompanying book will lead to further displays of Blake’s work in galleries and institutions. He already enjoys a high reputation within his chosen field, and these carefully executed studies of the human form can only enhance it further.—Paul Flux