Quentin Blake at the Hay Festival 2013

Thursday 2nd May 2013

This year's Hay Festival library lecture was given by illustrator and writer, Sir Quentin Blake, whose long collaboration with Roald Dahl and his own work, which includes Clown, Zagazoo, Mrs Armitage, Mister Magnolia and his recent study Beyond The Page, have confirmed him as one of Britainís greatest artists.

The event took place in the Barclays Pavilion on Thursday 23 May, 2.30pm in front of a capacity crowd.  Read the full text of the lecture here:
"In and Out of the Book: the Uses of Illustration" by Quentin Blake

It is a great privilege for me to be invited to give this Library Lecture. In fact this talk is not specifically about libraries, but nevertheless very much about matters that they are concerned with; and I don’t think I can begin without a salute to Sidcup Library, the library of my childhood. We start life with the possibility of two languages, verbal and visual, and for me, seventy years ago, my local library was a rich source of both. So it won’t be a surprise if I say that more recently I was delighted to give Sidcup some more pictures to go with their words (image 1: dragon mural for Sidcup Library).
In an article in the Telegraph about three months ago, on the occasion of an exhibition of my work in Cambridge, Rowan Pelling spoke of the power of illustration to speak, to stimulate, and cultivate. the visual imagination. That is a proposition that it would be fascinating to explore. However, what I want to talk about today is illustration in its more practical relation to words and to situations – its potential to reassure, to alleviate, to motivate.

I think my observations will be true to a greater or lesser extent of illustration by all kinds of artists. However, I hope you will understand that the reactions that I can report to you are mostly about my own work, and so I apologise straightaway if that tends to make these observations self-centered, and I hope this doesn’t seem too much like an ego-trip. I can’t think of another way of doing it.

To begin with, for instance, there was the retired junior school teacher who came up to me a few months ago in the Royal Academy to say how much she had made use in her teaching of books that I had illustrated. The one she particularly mentioned was Our Village – written of course, by a teacher, John Yeoman, out of his experience. She had a vivid memory of Mr Arkwright on his penny-farthing bike, and apparently her children had only to see Selina Scrubb to be ready to go off and research the position of domestic servants in the 19th century (image 2: from 'Our Village')
The effect that most concerns me, however, is the effect on literacy. I can’t talk about that without immediate reference to Matilda. She is Roald Dahl’s wonderful proponent of the magic of books – and being very special she even incorporates into it some special magic. She brings with her the atmosphere both of private reading and of libraries.
But Dahl is the master of a whole gallery of memorable characters; such as this pair for instance. (image 3: Mr & Mrs Twit). It may seem surprising but I’m not sure that they haven’t been equally effective in the cause of literacy. Their popularity seems limitless. I remember an encounter with a group of difficult young teenagers, who recognised The Twits and felt at home with them immediately. And two university undergraduates have said to me one different occasions: “That was the first book I read independently, because of the illustrations”. One young woman described how, as a child and not a reader, about to set out on a family holiday journey, she had first been attracted by the pictures, and then, of course, by the words; and then she was started as a reader. It was the beginning of her reading journey. She never looked back.

The relationship between text and illustration can on occasion be quite complex, but what illustration can first of all do is to welcome you to the book. I was lucky enough to have a similar experience in illustrating A Christmas Carol, and a secondary school teacher wrote to me recently from Nottingham to say that the school had had the enterprise to buy ninety copies, enough for three classes. “Now they are all reading Dickens”. 

It’s this question of motivation which is all-important. For the very young reader the visual language is more immediately and easily available, and we must all have had the experience of seeing a child “reading” the text of a picturebook of which they are not yet able to read the words.

That involvement, that stimulus, are what I feel to be specially important. You will understand why I attach particular value to the words of a young photographer in the North of England a few years ago, when he said to me: “My daughter could read at four years old before she went to school. Largely thanks to you”.

A little later it’s possible to do things to stimulate and complicate that motivation. One of my own books, for instance, is called Cockatoos. It’s about a not very bright gentleman called Professor Dupont who has a collection of cockatoos. Every morning he goes into their conservatory and says, “Good Morning, my fine feathered friends!” And they cringe and when they can’t stand it any longer they decide to hide. His search for them is described from his point of view: “He looked in to the attic. There weren’t any cockatoos!' And we have the task of scouring the double page spread to see that indeed there are some and exactly where they are. As Michael Rosen observed, “When I read this book to my small son, I am reading one story and he is reading another”. (image 4: Professor Dupont searching for cockatoos in his wine cellar.)

The book Clownoffers another approach, because here there are no words at all. Everything is done in mime, everything is done in pictures. When it first appeared I did receive a few murmurs of protest from parents who said “where is the story for me to read”? and to some extent I could sympathise with that. Needless to say it was junior school teachers who immediately identified all the opportunities for discussion and participation – for becoming individually involved in the story. 

 I wonder sometimes if this area of motivation, of feeling, is something that people who manage education (rather than those who do it) aren’t quite happy with. If perhaps, somewhere, they are even a bit frightened of it. Be that as it may, I don’t feel that I can leave this aspect of our subject without mentioning a book that I had the enormous privilege of illustrating nearly thirty years ago. It is Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen. It’s very funny, but it’s also an expressive fable about the nature of education. It’s about to be reissued, and in some ways it seems in the interim to have become even more pertinent. So please try to keep any idea of official education and its masters out of your mind while I read you a little of the beginning of it. 

 “Tom lived with his maiden aunt, Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She wore an iron hat, and took no nonsense from anyone. Where she walked the flowers drooped, and when she sang the trees all shivered". (image 5: Tom and his iron-hatted Aunt.)  Tom spends a lot of time fooling around on planks, and ladders, and bridges, and barrels in alleys and his Aunt decides that fooling around looks too much like playing. So she sends for Captain Najork and his Hired Spostrmen, and Tom has to play them at Womble, Muck and Sneedball. Needless to say his fooling around has given him real skills, and he wins them all. Aunt Fidget sets the defeated sportsmen to learn off pages of the nautical almanac by heart. There is more to the book than this, but you should look at it yourselves to see whether I am mistaken, as I probably am, in thinking that it has any relevance to the present day.

In recent years I have found another practical use of illustration on the walls of hospitals, and those pictures too have an element of storytelling in them. The first such project was foe a residential unit for elderly mental health patients, and I hoped that, as I was of their age group, they would not mind a little mild teasing – so I drew a parallel world, mostly in trees, where they could not only dance and sing and eat, but swing from branch to branch if they felt like it. I think they liked it: at least one patient exclaimed ”They are wonderful. They encourage us to do all the things we are not supposed to” 

Another parallel world was Planet Zog, for a young people’s medical and psychological reception centre, where the hospital became an alien planet where things might be very strange but you knew they were on your side. And your wheelchair might be very special. (image 6: from the series 'Welcome to Planet Zog').

A third and very different parallel world was for the Maternity hospitals in Angers in France, and in Cambridge. What was interesting to me about this was that the emphasis was less on distraction, or on reassurance (though that was present too) but, for once, on a sort of celebration. After the effort of labour, mother and baby could at least swim freely (they could almost fly) and meet each other at last as individuals.

Where a set of book illustrations is concerned the text itself is your guide, in all kinds of ways; it gives you your brief. A set of hospital “illustrations”, if we can still call them that, is different in that you have to discern your brief by talking to patients and professionals and trying to develop a sense of the situation. I have explained that what I generally like to do is to imagine some parallel, more encouraging, world. When I came to work on a series of illustrations for the Vincent Square Eating Disorders Unit my feeling was that the solution had to be different. That, in fact, these patients were already in a parallel world, of threat, restriction and discomfort, and what they needed was to be reminded of the comfort of ordinary life. If I give a bit more attention to this sequence of pictures it is because I had the good fortune to be offered a set of articulate and detailed reactions to them. Paula Brighenti is both an artist and a former eating disorder patient. What she had to say in her commentary was illuminating for me. She identified various themes, which I had almost instinctively embarked on; nurturing animals; body image, humour, and self acceptance, food, a discreet presence; creativity, relaxation; friendship.

Of nurturing animals, for instance, she observes; when an eating disorder patient withdraws from social contact, feels isolated and unable to trust others, being reminded of the possibility of a positive interaction with non-judgemental creatures, which does not demand verbal communication, is enormously beneficial. The association between being offered food and love, accepting food and trust, works to a very profound yet unobtrusive level. 

And of body image: “As we recognise in these drawings are most personal responses when confronting a mirror, and the peak of our indecision at the bottom of a mountain of undistinguished clothes, we do not feel criticised at all, but understood and accepted with benevolence."

There are many other observations I would like to quote, but one more will perhaps be sufficient. It’s about this picture. In fact there is a page or more of comment and analysis, but Paula Brighenti concludes: “It is this little girl that stays with me long after I move away from the picture.  She talks to the girl I was and who somehow went missing as I was trying to imprison her body. It was her mind and heart that were eluding me. It was her joy I could not hold on to… She shows me that it is not perfection but imagination that nourishes our dreams.'  (image 7: from 'Ordinary Life' for the Vincent Square EDU).

I hope that last observation may reflect to some extent on the other questions I have tried to look at here. I would like her thought to be true, although I am still afraid it is a truth that Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong may never learn.

Listen to Quentin's interview with BBC Wales at Hay, discussing working with Roald Dahl and the prospects for illustrators
An abridged version of this lecture was published by The Telegraph on 24 May
See Quentin's Facebook page for event photos
For more information about other events at this year's festival (23 May - 2 June), visit the Hay Festival website