20 July 2016

Quentin Blake exhibition - National Museum Cardiff

It’s impossible to imagine Roald Dahl’s books without Quentin Blake’s magical illustrations. Their collaboration began with The Enormous Crocodile in 1978 and continued to The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, published shortly after Dahl’s death in 1990.

As part of the Roald Dahl 100 celebrations, this free exhibition at National Museum Cardiff brings together more than 120 of Blake’s illustrations, including many of his finest and most iconic works.

Illustration for The Twits by Quentin Blake of couple eating at table

The Twits by © Quentin Blake

Most of the big hitters are represented here, including Dahl classics like Matilda, The Twits and The BFG. The pictures may have been seen millions of times in the pages of the books, but it’s a great thrill to see the originals here, together with plenty of previously unseen illustrations.

What makes Blake’s images special is that they seem so ‘right’ – as if they magically appeared at the same time as the words, fully formed. But what’s fascinating about this exhibition is that it shows the hard work behind the drawings – the rejected drafts, the work in progress, and the technical challenges. Which scenes do you choose to illustrate? Do you draw before, after, or at the precise moment at which Miss Trunchbull clobbers some poor child on the head? How big should the BFG’s ears be, exactly? It’s all explained here.

Illustration for The Twits by Quentin Blake of character with balloons

The Twits by © Quentin Blake

The National Museum

The setting is terrific, too. The National Museum is one of Wales’s finest buildings, and the exhibition space has been specially designed by Blake himself. There’s a life-size illustration of his own (incredibly messy) studio, from which his colourful creations fly up and around the walls.

Aside from the Dahl collaborations, there’s also lots of Blake’s solo work, and the illustrations he’s done for other authors, like David Walliams’ hugely popular The Boy in the Dress.

The most poignant section is devoted to Blake’s illustrations for Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, in which the poet describes his feelings after the sudden death of his son Eddie, at the age of 18. Blake later said that the picture of Rosen “being sad but trying to look happy” was the most difficult drawing he’s ever done. Seeing it here, in a section of the gallery where the walls have been painted a deep grey, is devastatingly moving.

Wales and the Unexpected

While you’re in the National Museum, it’s worth popping across the atrium to Gallery 1, where there’s a charming picture of Roald Dahl by Quentin Blake, commissioned for the cover of a new collection of essays, Wales and the Unexpected. Next to it, there’s a rare chance to see the famous portrait of Dahl painted by Matthew Smith in 1944, when both men were scarred by their wartime experiences.

National Museum Cardiff also has a series of summer family events inspired by Dahl, and they’re playing a big – and so far, top secret – part in Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected on the weekend of 17 and 18 September. To borrow a Dahlism, it’ll be totally whoopsy-splunkers. And that’s a very, very good thing.

National Museum Cardiff, until 20 November 2016