Mightier than the word;Briefing;People;Interview;Quentin Blake

19th March 1999 at 00:00
As London's literature festival gets under way, artist Quentin Blake talks to Geraldine Brennan

There are 60 world-class "books people" in London this weekend and many of them are trying to be in all 33 boroughs at once. But the only one who will make it is the artist Quentin Blake.

His Great Word Map of London, based on Londoners' nominations of fiction that celebrates their patch, will be unveiled at Victoria Station tonight to launch The Word, the capital's 12-day literature festival.

The map is the official festival emblem, on display all over London on posters and laser projections. The 33 drawings, created in a hectic eight days following the arrival of the selected books at Blake's door in West Brompton, take in the Canterbury pilgrims and The Wimbledon Poisoner, Graham Greene in Greenwich and Barbara Vine on the Tube.

The map says two things about the festival. First, with 350 events reaching Enfield, Bexley and Ruislip, The Word has a scope far beyond the literati's haunts and an inclusive formula that could be scaled down for any scattered group of communities.

"Part of the appeal of The Word for me is that it makes London conscious of itself - of its size and its variety - with the benefits of the festival distributed everywhere," says Blake, a committed Londoner except when he's in France (he supported the first AngloFrench children's book fair at the French Institute last year). He'll miss part of The Word as he's off to Paris to open his latest exhibition and to talk to librarians.

The second message of the map is that the image is at least as important as the word. There is no one better equipped than Blake - "that brilliant and always affectionate master of the dotty and inconsequential line", as the poet Charles Causley called him in a TES review in 1995 - to disseminate this idea.

The 66-year-old artist, who is on the short-list for the Children's Laureate post to be awarded in May, has created at least 200 illustrated books. Most are published for children but stolen by adults.

His work on his own texts or in long-term collaborations with the late Roald Dahl, Russell Hoban and John Yeoman has brought about many happy marriages of word and image. In the past year two solo titles, Zagazoo and The Green Ship, are on the short-list for the Kurt Maschler award for books in which text and illustration work well together. Clown (which won him the 1996 Bologna Ragazzi prize) has no words at all.

His other major contribution to The Word will be a day of Tate Gallery workshops for teachers on visual literacy, which he feels is an under-rated basic skill.

"At the back of our minds the idea persists that children have pictures in books because they can't read, and when they learn to read they no longer need pictures.

"We learn the language of pictures and of words at the same time, except that the pictures are very quickly assimilated. But that doesn't mean that once we do read we no longer need the pictures."

His own future was secured by a cartoonist who encouraged him as a teenager.

"As a child I loved American comics. When the Eagle was published I thought it wasn't a real comic because the paper wasn't poor enough quality - it smelt wrong." His first published drawing appeared in Punch when he was 16 and a pupil at Sidcup Grammar.

He decided on a literature degree at Downing College, Cambridge, rather than art school: "I knew I would keep drawing whatever happened, but I thought I might lose touch with books if I went to an art school."

A postgraduate certificate in education at the London Institute followed, but was only briefly put into practice - he soon found his way to Chelsea Art School and a full-time career as an artist, including 10 years as head of illustration at the Royal College of Art, where he is still a visiting tutor. His first children's book, Patrick, appeared in 1968, starting a long association with Jonathan Cape, his main publisher.

Fantastic Daisy Artichoke, his latest book for Cape, will be published in May. It's an illustrated verse celebrating the eccentric non-parent grown-up that Blake believes every child needs in the form of an adventurous auntie or, he suggests, "a nice teacher".

He's just finished The Heron and the Crane, a book for Hamish Hamilton with John Yeoman about the traumas of two angst-ridden water birds.

Then he thinks he might get on with a book for adults that charts his career so far. But last time he tried to do that, he found 33 novels set in London on the doorstep.

Quentin Blake will be at Battersea Arts Centre tomorrow. Bookings on 01497 821299. Other Word programme on www.theword.org.uk

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