Editor’s Note: In the September issue of The New Criterion, Dominic Green visits the English illustrator Quentin Blake’s exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Sussex. Click here for the original article.
Quentin Blake’s illustrations are as English as Marks & Spencer’s underwear, but much more reliable. Always inventive and oddly graceful, Blake descends from the gentler side of the English tradition. He is a cartoonist, not a caricaturist, and the savagery of a Gillray or a Gerald Scarfe is alien to him.
Blake’s model is the humane comedy of Ronald Searle. Perhaps this is why his pairing with Roald Dahl worked so well. Dahl’s stories are a child’s primer to snobbery and small cruelties. Dahl’s desire is to rouse us not to pity the little children, but the adult Dahl who cannot relinquish his grievance. Blake’s illustrations, however, are genuinely generous. Imagine a Dahl character, and you see an image from Blake’s hand. Do that, and you start to smile.
This illustrative rebalancing can be detected in the double act of Dickens and Cruikshank, where Cruikshank picks out the comedy of manners while Dickens milks the tragedy. We see it in Ernest Shepherd’s illustrations for A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, which endow a nursery joke with the qualities of an epic common to all humanity. Perhaps most remarkable of all, we see it in F. D. Bedford’s illustrations for Peter and Wendy, which draw a faerie veil over the manifest and monstrous perversions of J. M. Barrie’s text.
Blake (b. 1932) divides his time between London and the Sussex town of Hastings-on-Sea. Hastings boomed from fishing village to fashionable resort when the Georgians invented beaches and swimming. The town nearly died when the English working class discovered that Spain also had beaches and swimming. Wedged between its cliffs and the sea, and both compressed by and exposed to a giant and shifting maritime sky, Hastings has the light, the effects and, out of season, the cheap accommodation that artists like. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and ragged-trousered Robert Tressell lived there when it was genteel, and John Bratby, Edward Burra, and Paul Nash when it was not.
The Old Town of Hastings is undergoing regeneration, much of it spurred by the opening in 2012 of the Jerwood Gallery. Not all of the locals wanted their coach park to be regenerated as a Museum of Modern and Contemporary British Art. In 2008, the Hastings Bonfire Society registered its opposition by burning the Jerwood in effigy. Quentin Blake was an early supporter, and The Only Way To Travel is his second show at the Jerwood.
Free of narrative and plot, Blake pursues a curious inner journey across more than a hundred works. Some are pencil sketches as small as a postcard, but others were drawn in situ with the help of a cherry picker and a thick brush. The recurring figure is a Victorian-looking explorer who rides a winged bicycle or tricycle or a Heath Robinson contraption. He crosses deserts, spiky mountains, and dark oceans alone, as if following an inner compass or an inexplicable obsession. His only companions are half-man, half-bird, or madcap dragons, or hypothetical pack animals. The images are drawn in black with a brush, and washed with ominous grays. The only bright color is that of the sun and moon, but their colors are not natural and their locations rarely anchor the images.
Seeing these drawings and paintings reminded me more of Edward Lear than King Lear, but the elements of compulsion, solitude, and unreality are, in Baudelaire’s perfect image, touched by “a breath of wind from the wings of madness.” A similar desperation is visible in a series of works about the moral shame of modern Europe, the “Migrant Crisis,” a phrase which, by implying that the migrants are Europe’s crisis, allows us to ignore that the migrants themselves are in crisis.
It may not be coincidental that this painting of the people in transit with what remains of their goods is the only one in which Blake places the sun at the center of the image. An eerie purple disc, it resembles a stage light—and one aimed at the viewer.
The Migrant Crisis has now gone on for several years. Thousands have died in the attempt to reach Europe. On both sides of the Mediterranean, a vast criminal enterprise has been enriched by the many more thousands who have made it. But most Europeans prefer to look the other way, even when the odd boatload washes up on the beaches where they take their summer holidays.
These are the first works by any living European artist to address the moral affront of the Migrant Crisis without slipping into sentimentality. They are gentle on the eye but painful to look at, because of their uncompromising compassion. Blake’s line, always joyously fluent, communicates this without frivolity or cliché. Like many stories for children, these are not children’s stories at all.