It is perhaps fitting that a man who has had such a profound impact on the childhoods of so many people should produce an exhibition documenting his response to age. Quentin Blake’s art, in particular his illustration of Roald Dahl books, is arguably some of the most pervasive and iconic illustration of the last century; no doubt grandparents and grandchildren the world over would be able to recognise the distinctive character of his works at a hundred paces. And it is both encouraging and inspiring that such a distinctive oeuvre still retains originality, verve and, furthermore, can provoke debate.
Marlborough Fine Arts does have a rather distinguished back catalogue of past exhibitions, housing Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois alone in recent months. Whilst many will be familiar with Blake’s published works, the success of this exhibition will no doubt owe much of its character to the fact that all these works are “off the page” and, as such, none will have been seen before.
As one follows the works through the gallery, the visual progression that takes place, from the primitivist watercolour series Big Healthy Girls 1-12, to the style more commonly associated with Blake in the Girls and Dogs 1-6 lithograph series, marks very clearly a journey that negotiates Blake’s own personal reflections on age. This development from childish application of colour and delineation of form, to the more purposeful and “grown-up” works at the back of the room make the inherently complex process of aging seem reassuringly linear.
Similarly, the relationship between companionship and isolation is explored with considerable aplomb in Characters in Search of a Story 1-12. The soft lines which comprise the figures culminate in a wonderfully diverse selection of characters, with the emotions they portray heightened by the starkly blank page surrounding them. Undoubtedly isolation is an issue which plagues far too many elderly people, and despite the youthfulness which could be inferred from Blake’s industrial scale output, this theme possibly belies an issue which is close to the artist, and is perhaps best represented by the Women in Water 1-6 series. Whether intentional or otherwise, the comparisons to John Everett Millais’ Ophelia are striking, and reinforce notions of seclusion and loss.
However, that is not to say this is a sombre set of works. The celebration of childhood and relationships is wonderfully wrought, as is to be expected from an artist of such calibre known for his illustrations of children’s books, particularly notable in the Old and Young 1-8 series. The range of colour and media can only serve to heighten a celebration of skill.
While Blake does deal with serious issues, they at no point imbue sadness; it is never anything other than a pleasure to see so many of his works. The exclamation of love between parents and progeny, and the celebration of imagination makes this a gloriously varied and enjoyable exhibition.
Quentin Blake: New Etchings, Lithographs and Drawings is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London, W1S 4BY until 19th January 2013.