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date: 17 January 2019

BLAKE, Quentin

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn

BLAKE, Quentin (Saxby) (1932– ) British illustrator 

whose spindly, eccentric line drawings are instantly recognizable, and suited to children’s and adult books alike. Blake was brought up in Kent and studied at Downing College, Cambridge. He then worked as a teacher of French. He had no artistic training up to this time, but from 1949 began to contribute cartoons to Punch, and attended life classes at Chelsea School of Art. In 1957 he became a freelance illustrator. He was eventually appointed Head of the Department of Illustration at the Royal College of Art.

He began to illustrate children’s books in 1960 (his debut was A Drink of Water and other stories by John Yeoman, with whom he would collaborate again many times), and by the 1970s was in demand for books by such authors as Joan Aiken, Russell Hoban, Roald Dahl, and even Dr Seuss (A Great Day for Up in 1974 was one of only two books published in Geisel’s lifetime to feature a Seuss text set to pictures by another illustrator). More recently he has illustrated two bestselling novels by David Walliams.

The partnership with Dahl began with The Enormous Crocodile (1978) and continued until Dahl’s death, but Blake would also go back and illustrate Dahl’s earlier books, replacing the work of the original illustrators—Blake’s spikily energetic pictures and Dahl’s wildly inventive prose were a perfect match, and to most readers they are now inseparable.

A series of collaborations with Michael Rosen culminated in their most remarkable joint work, when Blake illustrated Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (2004). While Blake’s sprightly style may have seemed a peculiar choice for a heartbreaking book about grief, the result is superb. Its success just emphasized one of the things that makes Blake’s work unique—his entirely consistent, distinctive, utterly recognizable style which can nonetheless cover an enormous range, without apparently changing.

Among Blake’s more than 300 illustrated books are many of his own picture-book titles, including Patrick (1968), The Adventures of Lester (1978), Mister Magnolia (1980), which won the Kate Greenaway Medal, the counting-book, Cockatoos (1992), Clown (1995), an exemplary piece of visual—entirely wordless—storytelling, and Zagazoo (1998). They all share an apparent childlike simplicity in their pictures and a great sense of fun. Marcus Crouch has called him ‘a genuinely funny artist with humour at the very core of his being’. Blake’s distinguished career has won him the Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Eleanor Farjeon Award, and he was named the UK’s first Children’s Laureate on the scheme’s establishment in 1999. He was a keen supporter and trustee of the House of Illustration, which opened in London in 2014 with an exhibition of Blake’s work.