House of Illustration: art haven  

Set in a beautifully renovated corner of King’s Cross, a stone’s throw from Central St Martin’s and the stunning King’s Place gallery, the House of Illustration ‘is the place to see, learn about, and enjoy illustration in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design’.

The gallery, years in the planning, opened in July with a delightful first exhibition called Inside Stories which gives an insight into the art of Quentin Blake. He describes his job thus: ‘It’s like directing a play except that you also get to design the scenery, and play all the parts.’

In bright light and great detail, the origins of some of Blake’s most popular creations are revealed, from his illustrations for Roald Dahl’s The Twits and Danny the Champion of the World to his own story without words Clown and The Boy in The Dress by David Walliams, together with illustrations to books by John Yeoman, Russell Hoban and Michael Rosen.

The exhibition brings together first roughs and storyboards, many never shown before, with finished art work to demonstrate how ideas evolved, often in close collaboration with the authors. It shows how Blake uses a range of different techniques and media including inks, watercolours and pastels applied with a variety of touch, in response to the particular mood of a book and the nature of its characters, to create his distinctive and unforgettable illustrations.

Some are made of just 15 strokes, conveying real emotion and veracity. Amazing. On a warm but blustery day in the summer holidays, the gallery was very busy; and what struck most was the pure engagement of every visitor. Young and old were really looking at the displays and works on the wall; discussing knowledgeably, critiquing and even sketching. The work is so well known it’s a real treat to see how many of the most celebrated characters were born and to see how Blake creates a book. He is also reassuringly honest – in a film showing the process he uses, he takes scraps of paper ‘from drawings I’ve mucked up in the past’.

It was truly refreshing to get a genuine insight – Blake has annotated some of the displays; his familiar voice, dripping in humour, comes out in one of the annotations ‘All the artist’s materials in this case are taken from my real studio.’ drawn from life – it’s all invented on the page.’ To create an impression of reality, Blake uses a broken line and watercolour, and describes how Clown is designed: ‘The whole story has to be planned out and you will see in the storyboard how it is distributed across fifteen double page spreads, leaving each at a point of suspense to encourage the reader to turn the page.’

IP99 Illutration display

This is a dream for teachers desperate to get into students’ heads the art of storytelling and the importance of planning. One of the central exhibits – and one that prompted lots of interest and emoting – was the story of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book; he sent the story of his grief over the death of his 18-year-old son (from meningitis) to his publisher in an email asking, ‘Is it a book?’ Alongside the words are Blake’s scribbled notes detailing where and what the illustration points were.

The exhibition includes two films showing Blake in his studio and how he works; first creating a series of roughs, then overlaying these with a piece of watercolour paper on a light box. He draws over them ‘not tracing but using [the rough] as a guide…’

Alongside the exhibits, children (and adults) were given a worksheet to complete as they looked at the exhibits, and in the education room were able to meet, chat to and work with the first artist-in-residence Rachel Lillie, who studied illustration and animation at Kingston University and Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 2012. She is interested in storytelling and the process of drawing to remember and said: ‘I am absolutely delighted to be House of Illustration’s first illustrator in residence. It’s an incredible opportunity to work on an exciting new body of work and to be part of House of Illustration.’

The position of artist in residence is supported by the Barbara and Philip Denny Trust. A full education programme starts this month available on Thursdays and Fridays for up to 30 students. A 2.5 hour visit comprises one hour in the gallery and 1.5 hours practical workshop, using a variety of materials including inks, collage, drawing and watercolour with a choice of focus: character design, pop-up illustration, sequential illustration and creating mood and atmosphere.

A programme for further and higher education students is still in the planning stage. Blake believes anyone can draw – and the House of Illustration is a wonderful place of small beginnings to try this out. I was the delighted recipient of his book Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered, written in conjunction with John Cassidy – an absolute must for anyone. The introduction explains: ‘The school of art that this book lives within is informal, a friendly, no-need-to-get-up kind of place. The goal of this book is quite personal – to provide you with a new tool for expressing your you-ness.’

And it works – as even my nervous scribbles don’t look too bad!

House of Illustration: 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH The gallery is closed on Mondays. For details of the education programme contact education manager Emily Jost on 020 3696 2020.