Magazine article The Spectator

Hogarth's Heirs

Magazine article The Spectator

Hogarth's Heirs

Article excerpt

Hogarth's heirs Quentin Blake: Fifty Years of Illustration Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, until 28 March

There are plans afoot to found a Gallery of Illustration in Britain, the first noncommercial gallery of its kind to grace these shores. Not quite a museum, with its connotations of historical storehouse, but a centre for illustration in all its forms, present and past, with a strong emphasis on learning, an illustrator in residence, as well as archive material, exhibition spaces and computer facilities. Chief among the trustees and supporters of this deserving cause is Quentin Blake, himself a celebrated illustrator, and visiting professor of illustration at the Royal College of Art. In fact, so involved is Professor Blake with this initiative - he has donated his entire archive of over 4,000 original drawings to it - that it is to be called The Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration. As yet no permanent home has been found for it, but a choice selection of Blake's gift is temporarily on show in the Gilbert Collection. Will the Gallery manage to put down roots in the redeveloped riverside wing of Somerset House? It might turn out to be the perfect setting for it.

Undoubtedly there is a pressing need for a Gallery of Illustration. As an art form, it is all too evident that illustration has for too long been disparaged, while in comparison 'fine art' has been unfairly promoted. Very few painters manage to operate successfully as both illustrators and artists (Peter Blake is an honourable exception), despite the glorious tradition of illustration this country possesses. Just think, for a moment, of Hogarth, Cruikshank and Tenniel. Today we have Ralph Steadman, Glen Baxter and Quentin Blake - none of them recognised as artists, but rather snootily categorised as cartoonists or illustrators.

The handsomely designed and illustrated prospectus informs us that 'the fundamental premise of the Gallery will be that illustration is not only an art and craft in its own right, but provides an unthreatening access to the visual arts and a powerful motivation to literacy'. I don't know about 'unthreatening' when you contemplate the deadpan horrors of Maurice Sendak or Raymond Briggs, but anything that promotes literacy and the accessibility of the visual arts must be encouraged. Certainly the 'craft' element of illustration fits neatly with the Gilbert Collection's extraordinary array of excellence in applied-art craftsmanship. And the power of illustration to communicate on a very direct level, while it must never be underestimated, should also be harnessed if at all possible to a greater appreciation of the arts in general.

Quentin Blake (born 1932) is just the right sort of artist to be spearheading this campaign. For many years a teacher - he started at the Royal College in 1965 and stayed for more than two decades, ending up as head of the department of illustration (1978-86) - he is also an immensely distinguished writer and illustrator of international standing. His inspired collaborations with Roald Dahl brought him instant acclaim, and he went on to capitalise on this success by extending his activities in all directions. The current selection of his work at the Gilbert Collection ranges from his first published drawing, done for Punch in 1949 while still a schoolboy, to his most recent projects, such as the delightful Mrs Armitage, Queen of the Road. I only wish there was a bit more on show. …

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