ART: ‘The BFG in Pictures’ at the Quentin Blake Gallery, Kings Cross

Written by: Victoria Highfield

Contributor Victoria Highfield took a look inside Quentin Blake’s unique show of rarely seen illustrations at Kings Cross, showcasing Roald Dahl’s most loved characters.

When I approached the House of Illustration Gallery, located in the newly developed arts and cultural hub Granary Square at Kings Cross, I smiled. An appropriately giant sized BFG and dream jar greeted me and gave me a burst of excitement similar to one I experienced when I added the brand new Harry Potter book to my Amazon cart last week. As a working woman on the unforgiving side of 25 it’s becoming less and less often that I get to feel those carefree butterflies and magical moments normally reserved for childhood. I couldn’t wait to tune out of the mundane chores and the hecticness of day to day adult life and step into the crazy world of Blake’s illustrations where anything seems possible.

The House of Illustration is a small but impressive space. It believes itself to be the world’s first public educational art institution dedicated to illustration and members of the public can view fashion designs, political cartoons and advertisements amongst the artworks exhibited. It was first opened in 2014 by the legendary Quentin Blake and showcased an opening inaugural exhibition Inside Stories, which celebrated Blake’s impressive career and featured works from some of our children’s favourite books by the likes of Roald Dahl, Micheal Rosen, David Walliams and Blake’s own Crown.

Quentin Blake with House of Illustration curator Olivia Ahmad, taken by Paul Grover

The House of Illustration now has a permanent Quentin Blake Gallery and is currently in its final weeks of Seven Kinds of Magic, a show which explores varied depictions of magic both in Blake’s own books and other writers. Unlike what is stated on the website, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that not only did my £7 entrance fee give me access to both Quentin Blake exhibitions but an additional, slightly more serious show on picture books from Soviet Russia! Even if Russian history isn’t your bag (I must add I wouldn’t classify it as one of my main interests) then Picture Books from Soviet Russia is definitely worth a look around; an immensely interesting look at pre-revolutionary Russian illustration to the pioneers of Soviet children’s publishing. There haven’t been many cases where I’ve felt something has provided value for money, especially in an expensive capital city like London, however, this was definitely one of them.

Unlike the BFG’s humongous ears, the exhibition space itself is tiny and consists of one intimate yet charming room. Blake’s universal style drawings show his effortless technique and each piece is beautifully framed with a caption written by the illustrator himself (he is the founder and curator after all). 

Reading his words and taking in his memorable illustrations – even the unpublished drawings had a sense of familiarity about them – reminded me of visiting an old friend I hadn’t seen for years; you get on with them just as fabulously as when you last met. The captions are also brief and light-hearted and make a pleasant change to the headsets and lengthy scripts at other well-known galleries. It also means you can spend more time looking closely at each of the beautiful illustrations that, although familiar, are equally exciting to look at; who doesn’t want to see the first ever drawings of a snozzcumber!?

Included amongst the 40 original drawings was a how-to guide, previously published in the Guardian, on how to draw the BFG. It included four or five simple steps on how to achieve a BFG like character for the even the most inelegant drawer to follow. Although Blake states this is not how he himself draws the BFG it was yet another loveable touch to the exhibition.

Accompanying the show was a mini interactive workshop for smaller visitors and this was met with keen hands and eager smiles. However, without this hands-on approach, the exhibition would have lacked stimulation for younger audiences. It needed, for example, video visuals or sculpture, something to make this important and beautiful exhibition more accessible for children and crucially something to inspire budding illustrators.

However, for me as an adult, this was everything I needed to relive the magic of Dahl’s mischievous and marvellous tales which Blake clearly shows us through his iconic pictures. You can see that Dahl and Blake go hand-in-hand in depicting a story that has enchanted generations of children and adults and I would encourage all ages to pay a visit.

Don’t miss out on the delightful gift shop (it’s hard to miss as you actually pass through it on the way into the exhibition) as this in itself is a work of art. Although it’s worth noting that including the gift shop as an almost integral part of the exhibition does hint at the commercialisation/capitalist nature of the art world. Banksy suggests this in his docu-film Exit via the gift shop; you can’t leave any other way therefore influencing you to buy the £20 program that you will never look at again! True to form I left with a stunning limited edition copy of the BFG, yet for me, this really did heighten my experience. I was taking home a piece of my childhood and my future with Dahl’s famous words ringing in my ears,

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

The BFG in Pictures is at the House of Illustration Gallery, Granary Square, Kings Cross until 2nd October ’16. The gallery is closed on Mondays and last admission is 5.30pm.

Photos courtesy of The House of Illustration and IllustrationHQ by Paul Grover

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