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Sir Quentin Blake’s flights of fancy

Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl’s children books are inextricably linked in people’s mind. But that is neither the beginning nor the end of Blake. He has his own body of work and his own hinterland. And at 84 years old, Sir Quentin is as prolific as ever. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went on foot to see his biggest ever UK show of recent pictures, The Only Way To Travel at the Jerwood Gallery.

My first impressions are not particularly observant in that the pictures are very big and the ones in the Foreshore Gallery are almost exclusively black and white. There are animals and eccentric people in them and, rather self evidently, they are very Quentin Blake.

UnknownI am not so familiar with Roald Dahl’s children’s books, but I am a fan of Dahl’s adult, short stories which are quirky and macabre. So I looked again at Quentin Blake’s illustrations before going to the exhibition. On first viewing, they look fun and mischievous however there is a bit of bite in there too – if the Dahl adult stories are dark, the children’s books are not always a stroll in the park. So it needed someone to share Dahl’s vision of the world. Blake, it seems, was a perfect match.

On entering the Gallery, there are large paintings all around the room, peopled with odd-ball types, eccentric uncles with round spectacles, men smoking pipes and men loaded with  stacked haversacks being conveyed on bizarre machines. Flying or walking machines, Heath Robinson-esque ­– but not such meticulous detail. Heath Robinson’s were inventive flights of fancy – machines with practical purposes – some, even, that Wallace and Gromit would have been proud to have had amongst their  inventions.

rough seasPeople were in the gallery, smiling and pointing things out. I shared that too, until I looked more closely. It felt like going to a play that is billed as a comedy, when the laughter catches in your throat and you realise the fun has turned sour. Some of these are bleak images. This is Blake portraying his concerns and the serious side of life; pointing up today’s world of dislocated people, refugees, the lonely and depressed.

When you know this, you look more closely and you see men bowed, burdened with heavy loads; the mountains are spiky; the lands are barren; the rivers look deep with even the bank-side reeds looking menacing; and the waves are choppy seeming to beckon the overhead travellers down into the sea. Suns – or moons – are odd colours, pinks, and yellows. One picture feels apocalyptic –the sun black, the skies are grey as if contaminated by an ash fall-out. Men are bowed, they walk on stilts, men carry other men on their shoulders; dogs look tired and depressed. And vultures are standing by,

vulturesAs always, one sees what one wants to see. It isn’t necessarily all despair, there is hope and light and fun. And however precarious the conveyance, it is taking its passengers – somewhere.

I wonder how Blake would paint his self portrait. Or are many of the men tramping up and down dale, flying over landscapes, Blake himself?

I ponder this after seeing Jean Cooke’s wonderful exhibition, Delight in the Thing Seen, in one of the upstairs galleries. It is a delightful show. She was married to John Bratby who, apparently,  was competitive and jealous of her art to the extent he destroyed several of her paintings.

There are nudes, a portrait of Bratby, dainty skeletal trees, all beautifully painted. Cooke said “If your mind is attuned to beauty, you find beauty in everything.” And certainly her self portrait, if not deemed obviously beautiful, is handsome and honest. Her eyes stare directly out of the canvas at the world, at life. No wonder Bratby was envious of her art.

Quentin Blake

Quentin Blake at work

Quentin Blake: The Only Way to Travel is on until 15 October.

Jean Cooke: Delight in the Thing Seen is on until 10 September. 

Both exhibitions are on at the Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings, TN34 3DW is open Tuesday – Sunday, and Bank Holiday Mondays 11am – 5pm.

Posted 16:35 Tuesday, Jun 27, 2017 In: Visual Arts

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