Britain’s best-loved illustrator Sir Quentin Blake brings his exhibition, As Large as Life, to the region next month. He talks to Catherine Vonledebur about working with Roald Dahl and why he loves plimsolls.

In the vaulted medieval undercroft at St Mary’s Hall in Coventry I meet Sir Quentin Blake.

The 81-year-old illustrator is sitting on a table in the corner of the room; a distinguished figure with windswept grey hair – a little like one of his drawings.

On his feet he wears a pair of bright white shoes.

Quentin was a “bit nervous” when he first met Roald Dahl. The pair got on very well but the writer liked to gently wind him up. “I often wore these white shoes, and he’d say ‘Here’s old Quent’ –no-one else ever calls me that – ‘here’s old Quent, he’s going out for dinner in his plimsolls,” he writes on his website.

After we are introduced I point out that he is still wearing his plimsolls. Quentin breaks into a smile and starts to laugh. “They’re not plimsolls they are shoes made in Germany,” he politely explains. “Roald liked to wind people up, in a nice way. They are very comfortable and I have quite uncomfortable feet.”

It was the artists’ first visit to the city and he was here to receive the first Lifetime Inspiration Award at last week’s Literally Coventry Book Festival, which celebrates children’s literature and illustration. 

Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition
Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition

“I was struck and deeply moved by the nature of this award –I didn’t know it existed until receiving it,” said the former children’s laureate, who lives in a 19th century mansion flat near Earl’s Court in London.

Many adults and children will have grown up with Sir Quentin’s scrawly images of beasts, wiry children and big-eared giants of The Witches, The BFG, James and The Giant Peach and Matilda. Not only did he famously collaborate with Roald Dahl for 15 years, but the writers Michael Rosen, Russell Hoban, Joan Aiken and John Yeoman. His own children’s storybook creations have included Clown, Zagazoo, Mrs Armitage and Mister Magnolia.

But from July 27, parents and children will get the chance to see a different side to the artist when a touring exhibition of his latest work comes to The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.

Quentin Blake: As Large as Life features recent works he has produced for hospitals and clinics.

The exhibition, organised by Warwickshire’s Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon, in collaboration with the House of Illustration, has been touring Britain for the last two years.

The four series of drawings tackle complex subjects – old age, mental health and eating problems – but the mood of this exhibition is positive and upbeat.

Quentin’s illustrations are designed to have a therapeutic effect on the patients looking at them.

Our Friends In The Circus, 2009, which is on display at a mental health ward at Northwick Park Hospital, depicts elderly people as jugglers,
fire-eaters, tightrope-walkers and clowns.

Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition
Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition

Ordinary Life for the Vincent Square Eating Disorder Clinic in London is a celebration of everyday life, with characters doing seemingly mundane and pleasurable things such as having a picnic, feeding the birds or picking some apples.

While 50 pictures of mothers and babies swimming underwater from the Mothers And Babies Underwater series are on display in 11 delivery suites at a maternity hospital in France – the newly-built Centre Hospitalier in Angers.

Quentin says: “You would not otherwise get to see these paintings unless you were an ill child, someone with a mental illness, an eating disorder or pregnant.

“I had been doing a lot of work in hospitals for the previous five years and it has been touring ever since for the last two years. I have not been able to catch up with it. Now I know Coventry is only an hour from London I will try and get to see it.”

Chris Kirby, head of collections and programming at The Herbert, said: “We first saw the exhibition at Compton Verney.

“It was wonderfully vibrant and it is another face to the artist. As always his drawings are so inspiring and full of joy. It is a very personal project for Quentin and is great for people to see – he’s such an icon.”

* Quentin Blake: As Large as Life will run from July 27 to November 3. Admission is free.

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Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition
Quentin Blake: As Large as Life exhibition