Inside Stories: Quentin Blake at the National Museum

Rachel Carney whets her appetite for Wales’ Roald Dahl celebrations by visiting a retrospective of his long-time illustrator’s signature work

It’s not often that you get to meet a great artist in person and hear them discuss their work in detail. Quentin Blake was, unfortunately, not available last weekend, but the National Museum of Wales’ exhibition of his work makes a valid attempt to provide the next best thing. The gallery is beautifully decorated with a cast of characters flying around the walls, alongside a huge depiction of Blake’s rather messy looking studio.

In this centenary year of Roald Dahl’s birth, the exhibition creates a world where imagination turns into art, and where adults and children can learn about the tricky, ambitious process of illustration. The introductory text explains that ‘Quentin has chosen nine of his books to show how he develops character and mood’ and the quotations around the room are from the man himself, describing the process in his own words.

‘Inside Stories’ includes illustrations from The Twits and Danny Champion of the World which, Quentin Blake explains, were chosen to show the contrast between two different artistic styles: ‘caricature’ and ‘reality’. There is something thrilling about seeing the original sketches and watercolours, albeit through a pane of glass.

The exhibition is engaging and child-friendly, with questions printed around the walls (in Blake’s immediately recognisable handwriting) such as ‘Which moments do you choose to illustrate?’ together with the artist’s answers: ‘I chose the moment before Mrs Trunchbull hit Bruce Bogtrotter with the plate’, and the corresponding illustration. You can see how he drew the BFG’s ears, and how he created Matilda to look especially small. There are also screens where you can watch short films of Blake describing the artistic process in great detail.

Adults and children were having a go at creating their own illustrations in one part of the gallery, copying images from the books. Other highlights include Blake’s depiction of his illustration tools. He uses a variety of implements to produce different styles, from a ‘pen with a scratchy nib’ to ‘Quills – from turkeys and geese, and one from a vulture’.

The focus of the exhibition is definitely Quentin Blake, rather than Roald Dahl, including illustrations from books by several other writers. There are a series of images from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book which is quite moving, even in its simplicity, telling the story of Rosen’s grief after the death of his son at the age of eighteen. It is fascinating to read Blake’s comments on how he chose to illustrate ‘sadness’.

The museum has done well to make the exhibition fun and exciting, and not too adult-focused, but I did hear a young girl explaining to her mum: ‘If you read [the captions] a lot, it takes a long time’. Her mum continued to read (a lot), and she followed, patiently, around the room.

As well as the drawing activities in the gallery, the museum also has an illustration themed booklet for children to take round all the galleries, and a competition for the best character. There are one or two other events planned, including a ‘surprise event’ which even the staff don’t know about yet, for the City of the Unexpected weekend in September.

Rachel Carney is a literary blogger.

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