A rare interview with the prizewinning illustrator by Jonathon Sale
Quentin Blake (Downing 1953) is a prizewinning illustrator and children’s author. The town-in-country feel of Cambridge influences his drawings even now
‘You got in by knowing nothing!’ my supervisor, Harold Mason, told me. I took it as a compliment to my independence of thought and reading. (1 hope I was right.) At Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School I was taught English by J H Walsh, who was not a ‘His Master’s Voice’ man but instead tried to cultivate in us a certain spontaneity. He prepared me for Cambridge, and Downing in particular; he knew people in that world. Downing wasn’t very public school; Simon Raven the upper-class novelist was very sniffy about Downing men who wore polo-necks and drank cocoa.
I had been sending drawings to Punch from the age of 14 – and at 16 one or two were accepted at seven guineas each. I didn’t know what to do with the cheque; I didn’t have a bank account. During my National Service I illustrated a teaching pamphlet for soldiers entitled English on Parade. I wasn’t a natural soldier – I lost a platoon on the Isle of Wight – but after National Service I found it hard to get back into writing essays. At Cambridge, I ended up with a 2.1 but managed only a 2.2 in my first year: I hadn’t quite got back into the swing of it.
I had a large room in college from which you could see Dr Leavis arriving on his bike, leaning it against the wall and getting off – all in one movement. I once did a drawing of a rather balloon-like Fellow talking to the gaunt Leavis among the Downing daffodils. Afterwards I drew Leavis with C P Snow for The Spectator at the time of the famous ‘Two Cultures’ row. It was a privilege to be near a mind of that order but we were mostly too daunted to say much! A lot of what Leavis did was very good but he wasn’t interested in his students until they were potential writers and critics. By contrast, Mason’s supervisions were enjoyable; he was more interested in individuals.
The good side of all this was that afterwards one never felt embarrassed about having an opinion that was different from anyone else’s. One could even disagree with Leavis – eventually. Occasionally you’d be invited to the Leavises’ for tea, where you experienced a strange style of niceness, perhaps because they didn’t know how to relate to people. They themselves never smoked but they plied people with cigarettes because they knew people smoked.
Leavis liked to believe that he led the shift of critical opinion towards Dickens, but I think there was a general shift of sensibility anyway. I was fascinated by Dickens and by his illustrators, who were crucial to his career as a novelist. It all began when he was brought in to write the script to a series of sporting prints, resulting in The Pickwick Papers. I’ve never lost my interest, and in 1994 was delighted to be asked to do a set of stamps for the Royal Mail on the theme of A Christmas Carol. Later, I also produced an illustrated version of the book.
Before I came up to Cambridge, Nick Tomalin [the well- known journalist killed in the Yom Kippur war] asked me to draw for Granta. I didn’t do very much, partly because my mind was on Punch and partly because I didn’t quite have the confidence then to relate to the smart students who ran the magazine. But I’m pleased I managed to art direct and illustrate a couple of issues before I went down. An emissary from Varsity, which was edited by Michael Winner, came to invite me to contribute, but I declined: it was being turned into the Daily Mirror.
I wrote optional essays for the tripos about Cezanne and Daumier, but in general my studies didn’t have much to do with my artistic interests. Looking back, though, I think they had a considerable effect. Illustrators are all hybrids of one kind or another and I think that learning to be a reader, knowing something about how writing works was important to me. It has meant that I’m one of not many illustrators ready to illustrate other people’s work as well as their own.
I liked Cambridge and walking around it. I very much enjoyed the feeling of being islanded amid the Backs and Fens. I specially liked that meadow behind the Fitzwilliam Museum – Coe Fen? – with its feeling of being in both town and country. Although I tend to leave out backgrounds from my drawings, that whole atmosphere of buildings and low-lying meadows with trees has appeared in quite a lot of my books. I’ve been hanging around marshes ever since: first Romney Marsh and now in France, where I work in a house in oyster country.
At one Cambridge cinema you used to be able to see Buster Keaton films. He was not only in a direct line from the white- faced clown invented by Deburau; he also knew how to compose the image on the screen. This had a direct bearing on what I do: tell stories in pictures.
I was at Cambridge at the same time as a friend from school, John Yeoman, and we’ve shared a flat more or less ever since. We collaborate on children’s books. Up With Birds!, which he wrote and I illustrated, is just out. We were in Cambridge last month, signing copies at Heffers Children’s Bookshop. Not long ago I received an invitation from the Admissions Tutor at Downing, offering not a place but a lunch. He told me his daughter had read in a magazine that I had been at Downing and thought I must still be there. She was very disappointed to learn that, 40 years on, I wasn’t still in residence!
Quentin’s official website is at www.quentinblake.com/