The first ever documentary dedicated to the much-loved illustrator is full of surprises. Here are a few things we discovered about our Founding Trustee from Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life, now available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
1. He’s a total hero to so many authors and illustrators
After 500+ books over 70+ years as an illustrator, it’s no surprise Blake’s had an outsize influence, but it’s charming watching just how hard others fanboy/fangirl over him.
The celebrity talking heads in the show are almost in competition over who’s most indebted to him. Chris Riddell credits him with “drawing me towards this job called being an illustrator,” while Steven Appleby benefited from being an actual student of Blake at the RCA.
David Walliams attributes his success to Blake – “I don’t think I’d be a successful children’s author today if it wasn’t for Quentin,” while Dapo Adeola states that his love of Blake’s work “sparked the fire for me to pursue this career – one hundred per cent!”
Our favourite? Emma Chichester Clark’s startling assertion: “I often think if it wasn’t for Quentin I’d be living in a skip.”
2. He taught Chris Riddell to read
Unfortunately for Chris Riddell, Blake didn’t actually sit him down with a book, but he came a close second.
Riddell recalls struggling to learn to read (he wasn’t having much luck with the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme) until he saw a book illustrated by Blake.
“I wanted to know the story that this image was illustrating and when I opened this book I decoded sentences that were far more difficult than Peter and Jane and Tea with Mummy because they had Quentin’s drawing next to them,” he remembers. “I went to my teacher and said ‘I want some more books like this.’ The world was opened up and Quentin was the great guide.”
3. He’s a showbiz-book sceptic
While David Walliams declares that Blake was the “dream” illustrator for his first book, The Boy in the Dress, Blake admits he wasn’t so sure about Walliams.
“I will confess that I wasn’t sure,” he says with a little smile, “because people in show business do write books sometimes because they think they ought to.”
Fortunately for fans of the book, he gave it a chance. “I rather tentatively read it, and I thought ‘My goodness, this is the real thing!’ You know, it was absolutely wonderful.”
4. Watching Blake draw is watching him act
Blake has described many times how “illustrating is like acting.”
But it’s one thing to read this; quite another to actually watch him at work, widening his eyes as he draws a character.
5. He has an extraordinary capacity for empathy
People sometimes find it curious that one of the most successful children’s book illustrators in the world has no children of his own. But Blake doesn’t think this at all.
“It’s not a question of knowing about children. You be them,” he explains – encapsulating his ability to empathise with all kinds of people in a nutshell.
Whether he’s making comedian Josie Long feel “seen” as a parent with his book Zagazoo or capturing Michael Rosen’s grief for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Blake shows that you don’t necessarily have to experience something first-hand to understand what it’s like.
6. He draws dreams
One of the great pleasures of the documentary is how it spotlights Blake’s work for hospitals. We meet a doctor who works with older people with mental health difficulties, a midwife on a labour ward, and a recovering anorexia nervosa patient, all of whom have appreciated Blake’s work in clinical settings.
For the older people, Blake drew them swinging through trees; for the maternity ward, he pictured mothers meeting their newborn babies; and for the eating disorder unit, he painted people going about their normal lives, doing laundry and walking in the rain. In each case, he’s captured the viewers dreams, from memories of youth to hopes for recovery.
“The things that are happening in the pictures are things that people in their 70s and 80s may no longer be doing in reality, but Quentin said they are still doing them in their minds,” explains Dr Nick Rhodes of The Nightingale Project. “The patients loved that, they chuckled at the pictures in delight.”
“Often hospitals and clinic buildings can be depressing, unfriendly, institutional places,” he adds. “If you can make somebody laugh and smile while they’re passing down the corridor, I think you’ve achieved something quite important.” We couldn’t agree more.
7. He’s pretty excited about the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration
Ok, we may have kind of known this already, what with working on the Centre for the last two years, but it’s still revelatory to hear him talk about his ambitions for our new home at New River Head.
“There’s a huge amount of illustration that nobody knows about… It would be wonderful to have a space in which those things could be shown,” he explains.
“The fact that it’s actually happening is wonderful. Here we are, physically at this moment and in the picture, in our building, and I’m extremely happy about that!”
“Illustration is a language that everybody understands,” he adds. “That will have a home here.”
Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer.