An urban-grey skyline glowers, walls, railings and street lights loom over us and a plane, innocent feature of pre 911 skies, now passes a tower block with a hint of menace. Not a still from some grim art-house tale of lowlife in the city though, because with this wondrously drawn and painted picture you look further down the page and come to a crazy pram chase: a manic baby urging on its scampering pram-pusher, followed by a tiny clown, all arms and legs and brandishing a ragged bunch of flowers. We are in the middle of an illustration from a children's book by Europe's best-loved illustrator, the first children's laureate, Quentin Blake.
The national curriculum for art would have us show students the work of artists, designers and craftspeople to stimulate their creativity, but there seem few specific references in the curriculum as to how the work of illustrators, who create many of the most freely available images, might do exactly the same job. What mileage might we get from this full-page work from Clown (a book unique among the 250 or so books that Blake has illustrated in that it has no text at all)? Could it be as valuable to focus on a work that is at first sight a cartoon-like dash across a page, with little detail and plenty of white paper, as to look at a highly-finished work from the canon of fine art or photography?
Let's look more closely. We'll assume that, until we find out later, we don't know that this is one of a sequence of pictures which together make up a narrative. It seems to be dusk, for the street lights are on, while above, a magnificent pink-red sunset splashes across the sky. The pram is one of the kind you see in 1950s photographs being pushed by uniformed nannies; it's long enough for quite a large baby to stretch out and deep enough to pile in shopping, baby equipment and, here, the ears and beaks of a mound of toy animals which peek out behind the baby.
But satellite dishes on the buildings tell us that the scene is modern and the pusher of the pram is no nanny. She's a skinny child, with a large blue hair-ribbon, an odd fit with her raggy top and trousers which are of the faded yellow and green you only see together on charity shop rails. Despite her mad hurry she turns back to look down at the pursuing clown with what is perhaps an enquiring smile.
The clown is another story. In every way he behaves like a convincing human being, moving in a credible fashion and responding to the child in a way we recognise, and yet the angle of his free arm leaves us uncertain about the anatomy under his costume. So here's the magic that we've perhaps already half-guessed from this conjunction of the certain and the improbable.
Questions remain. Children are familiar with Buzz Lightyear, Pinocchio and the many other storyworld toys who come to life, but where is the trio heading for? The baby seems to know and approve, so perhaps it's somewhere familiar? Is the bunch of flowers a present for the girl? But the toyhuman clown has a sort of triumphant expression (how did the artist convey that in so few lines?) that suggests they have a more urgently practical purpose How does the low viewpoint from which the cityscape towers over us make us feel? Red is the correct colour for sunset, but that particular hue gives it an emotional impact that is redolent of the happy endings of certain films. Or could it be a happy beginning? Blake's genius is an ability to capture the richness of any moment in a story through pure line and colour, without any words; but that wordlessness inspires the readerviewer to use words to relate what he has seen. This is where the classroom comes in.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's introduction of speaking, listening and learning materials remind us of the importance of spoken language in learning. A picture, in particular one that has been composed to communicate as a wordless text, offers opportunities for language development.
Use this illustration as a starting point for primary writing by first getting children to describe. Play a game in which the picture is shown to one or two in the class; they then describe it to the rest of the group, who could also be asked to "draw what they hear". This last activity helps them listen in a particular way and demands precise language by the describer.
Alternatively, use it as a prompt for play-writing from key stages 1 to 3, preceded by dramatic improvisation. Blake's sketchy style, which emphasises the provisional nature of any moment, is an ideal starting point for this.
After a discussion of the picture, ask children to imagine it as the starting point of a story and to improvise the missing parts. They will need to have considered character, setting and plot. Ask them to imagine what each character is saying - their words could be written as speech-bubbles stuck on photocopies of the picture.
In the rest of Quentin Blake's story, a clown comes to life from a pile of unwanted toys in a dustbin; his mission, to rescue his dustbin companions.
He comes across city-dwellers who ignore him or treat him as a piece of rubbish, until the moment when he's slung into the squalid flat where our pram-pushing child is babysitting her screaming sibling in his pram. Clown cheers them with his antics, mops up the chaos in the flat, leads the children to the dustbin where the toys are duly rescued, and back to the flat, pausing only to liberate a junked bouquet, the perfect finishing touch to delight the children's desperate mother on her return. So as well as being a rescue adventure, it is also a story of decay and redemption in the city and appeals to all of us, including under-fives.
The exhibition Quentin Blake: Fifty Years of Illustration is at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until March 28. Booking and opening times: www.gilbert-collection.org uk Guided visit, Joint Education Department Tel: 020 7420 9406Clown by Quentin Blake, Red Fox, pound;5.99Quentin Blake's website www.quentinblake.com The Learning Centre in the basement of East Building provides programmes based on the painting, sculpture and decorative art collections in the Courtauld Institute, the Hermitage Rooms and the Gilbert Collection. Free events such as art workshops and storytelling are open to families and children, while adult learners can enjoy lectures, study days and courses. Gallery talks, demonstrations, object handling sessions, practical art classes, and poetry courses run alongside a programme for teachers and students. Learning Centre Tel: 020 7420 9406 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ghislaine Kenyon is head of learning, Joint Education Department, Somerset House, London
Key stages 1-2 humanities. Journeys and cities. How do we travel? look at wheels and feet and wings.
What do you learn about the urban setting?
Art and design: (QCA unit 2C Can buildings speak?, Unit 4C Journeys and Unit 6A People in action) Blake's figures combine extreme economy of line with close observation. Explore his materials: a simple dip-pen (in this case with a Waverley nib), Indian ink and watercolour washes.
KS3-4 art and design. What does it feel like to be a skateboarder or athlete? How can you convey movement through line? Try washes and inks. Watercolour paper soaks up the wet colour creating unexpected and pleasurable splurges.