Space to sketch in the details of an artist's life

21st March 2003 at 00:00
There is a building somewhere in London with Quentin Blake's name on it, a place where people will be able to go in a few years' time to have their eyes opened.

Blake, possibly the UK's most prolific and best-loved illustrator, has just announced plans for the Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration. The proposals have the flavour of an airy five-minute Blake drawing in which a few intriguing lines leave acres of space for the imagination to fill. This is a virtual gallery with no premises as yet ("There are a few ideas," Blake admits, "but I don't want to say anything in case it all goes pear-shaped"), although it has all the machinery in place to become real.

There is a project director, Claudia Zeff, a trustees' committee including Arvon Foundation veterans Sir Robin Chichester Clark and Sir David Pease, a fund-raising target of pound;2 million and a collection in the form of Blake's personal archive.

This represents more than 50 years of constant output, from early Punch and Spectator contributions (his first published drawing appeared in Punch when he was 16 and a pupil at Sidcup grammar) to the original artwork for more than 200 books including those created with Roald Dahl, Russell Hoban and John Yeoman, and his solo projects of the late 1990s including Clown, The Green Ship and Zagazoo.

"I've sold very little and I keep a lot of roughs, so in many cases I have the story of the book's progress, finished artwork that wasn't used in the book and so on, to explain how books are made and how illustration is done.

About a year ago, one or two people asked me what I was planning to do with it all, and I realised I had the basis for a gallery. Rather than sell it or leave it in a cellar, I want it to have an active life."

But the key purpose of the venture is to win a mass audience for illustration by hosting exhibitions of the best historical and contemporary work from the UK and abroad. Although Blake is best known as an illustrator of children's books and was appointed the first Children's Laureate (1999-2001), he now has raising the visual literacy of adults in his sights and the gallery will not have children exclusively in mind. It will be partly a resource for art students, reflecting Blake's 20 years' teaching at art colleges, including 10 as head of illustration at the Royal College of Art. The RCA has given "a lot of support", he says, and the British Museum and the Vamp;A have already agreed to lend pictures.

But adults who know little about the history and techniques of print illustration (in books, magazines and newspapers, editorial and advertising) or who would like to find out how a picture book works, or become more practised in interpretation of pictures, will find the future building has their name on it too.

"It will be an active space with an active education programme, aiming at a high level of understanding, but not dry or frightening," Blake says. The acquisition of an archive beyond Blake's own will not be a central feature as it is in Newcastle's Centre for the Children's Book; instead, the gallery will concentrate on drawing in exciting works for exhibitions on themes with wide appeal such as animals, children's games or images of Paris (Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec and the contemporary illustrator Sempe).

Blake has strong French connections and has recently illustrated a collection of French poetry for children, Promenade de Quentin Blake aux Pays de la Poesie.

His two-year term as Children's Laureate included projects that confirmed the UK public's untapped passion for illustration. He curated Tell Me a Picture, the hugely popular visual storytelling show at the National Gallery, and the touring exhibition of children's book art, Baker's Dozen.

More recently, he has co-curated Magic Pencil at the British Library, about to enter its final week before a British Council tour.

We can expect more magic pencils at work filling in the detail of the intriguing outline.

Magic Pencil is at the British Library until March 31. Details on Quentin Blake's new website,, was launched this week

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