Sir Quentin Blake reveals the inspiration behind his new exhibition, ‘Anthology of Readers’, in which he affectionately caricatures the bookish among us.
The invitation to make drawings of readers has, for me, several interests. One is that reading happens to be the only discipline in which I have a proper qualification: more than half a century ago, I had the privilege of reading English at Downing College Cambridge at the feet of F. R. Leavis, the most remarkable literary critic of the time. Leavis was dogmatic, but, taken properly, could really help you to read both perceptively and as a whole person.
I have always valued the time spent with the Metaphysicals: Pope, Hopkins and — inevitably with Leavis — D. H. Lawrence. At that time, Leavis hadn’t really discovered the genius of Dickens; Hard Times was singled out as the work of merit and it was only later that he opened up to the extraordinary richness of Great Expectations, Bleak House and Little Dorrit.
At any rate, I left Cambridge a dedicated reader and what could be nicer than drawing other people reading? Even in the age of the iPad and the smart phone, books offer things that they cannot. Not the text, of course, but the physical presence — the look, the feel, the smell — and you will see that, among my book lovers, there is one getting as close as possible to an impressive tome, one admiring a handsome binding and another taking a concentrated sniff. One of the authors I discovered later in life was Arnold Bennett and there’s an extra pleasure — minor, but not irrelevant — in reading him in volumes of the period.
Not only do people go on reading books, but they still read anywhere — so you will find I depict readers shopping, travelling, on the beach, in the rain, in bed and in the shade of a tree, with sandwiches and a glass of wine. I suppose that last is the one I would most like to be, although he serves to remind me of some very draughty outdoor reading indeed.
But it’s the ordinary readers, so to speak, who are the most fascinating to me and the ones I most want to draw — the little theatre of their gestures and reactions, the positions they get themselves into, their expressions of doubt, apprehension, excitement and delight. Many may simply be concentrated on the words in front of them, but I couldn’t deprive myself also of the sight of sheer boredom.
Perhaps it is worth saying that none of these readers or situations is observed: they are all invented on the page, acted, as it were, with me mentally hunching myself into this posture or lounging myself into that.
If reading is important to me, there is also the fact that, for most of my life, my practice as an artist has largely been illustration. It has brought me some wonderful collaborations — from yesterday and today, Roald Dahl and David Walliams; from the past, Cyrano de Bergerac, La Fontaine and Voltaire — so you will forgive me if I add that I hope at least some of the readers I have depicted are also looking at the pictures.
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