Brian Alderson’s essay on the illustration of the works of Roald Dahl,
‘Roald Dahl and his Illustrator Quentin Blake’, written for an
exhibition prepared for Seven Stories in 2007, received little
circulation and is now reproduced here.
I: The Partnership
‘It has turned out to be a piece of matchmaking of which I am especially proud.’
Thus Tom Maschler, editorial director of Jonathan Cape, in a short preface to a new edition of The Enormous Crocodile published in 1999, nine years after Dahl’s death. For it was over the gently-smiling jaws of that gormless beast that the ‘marriage’” (Maschler’s word) was effected in 1977 and the couple were to stay together to the end of the author’s life.
What Maschler also makes plain is that the partnership began with something for which only one precedent existed in Dahl’s career: the text of a picture book. Its only predecessor had been his very first published work: The Gremlins of 1943 which had materialised via the Disney Corporation, who had thoughts of making an animated film of it, and it remains something of an anomaly in the Dahl ‘canon’. Maschler, who loved picture books, now had to exercise his famed editorial powers to persuade a picture-book scenario out of this writer who was a relative newcomer to his publishing house. (Up to 1975 Dahl had been published in Britain by Messrs Allen & Unwin, but their star was fading and when, in Dahl’s view, a muddle occurred over the contract for Danny, the Champion of the World he investigated alternative publishers, holding a kind of private auction, and, being impressed by Maschler’s energy, he transferred the manuscript to Cape. That book was then illustrated by Jill Bennett who had also just illustrated Fantastic Mr Fox for Puffin Books.)
As a storyteller accustomed to building his narrative through a succession of episodes Dahl found the making of a picture book text ‘damned difficult’, and indeed (as we shall see) the number of words in The Enormous Crocodile was testing the boundaries of the genre. But Maschler was determined that it should appear in the customary quarto format, with thirty-two pages. He gathered together some examples by several illustrators and discussed their merits with Dahl who was delighted by Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen (1974 – another Cape book). So Blake was approached, and agreed to do the crocodile book.
It is not impossible that Dahl was initially somewhat nervous over the implications of this collaboration for, unlike his previous English illustrators, he was working with an artist with a large and firmly established reputation. By 1977, when the contract for the crocodile book went through, Blake had already illustrated over a hundred books. For sure, many of these were affairs of the moment but they represented a lot of experience and his collaborations with John Yeoman and Michael Rosen, as well as work on his own picture books, were establishing his distinctive reputation (and had not Captain Najork recently won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award?). Nevertheless, it is significant that Maschler at this stage had only proffered his work to Dahl alongside that of others and the artist’s rise to eminence, with such books as Mr Magnolia and All Join In, would take place at the time when he was also partnering Dahl. It did not take long though in 1977 for the author to recognize how perfect was the congruence that grew between the wild episodes of his text and the comedy of the accompanying pictures – especially the characterisation of the crocodile himself. With the book done, no publishing decision could be more natural than that Blake be asked to illustrate Dahl’s next book, The Twits, which appeared in 1980.
Here the illustrator was confronted by an entirely different set of requirements. For although the text cannot have been very much longer than that of Crocodile it was cast as a short fiction rather than a picture book and in it Dahl returns to a favourite ploy: setting up deeply dislikeable characters in order to exact upon them a condign vengeance. The only colour that was to be used was on the dust jacket, where nice play was made with the upside-down theme that was central to the whole farce, but for the rest Blake had to find a visual language in black and white to cope with the squalour of Mr and Mrs Twit’s domestic arrangements and the frenzied activities of the birds and monkeys who are the agents of their doom.
At this point it is perhaps worth hazarding an opinion about the effect on Dahl of his move to Jonathan Cape. Although his most famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, had been published as long ago as 1964, it had been followed by what look like random experimentations, culminating in the book that he took to Cape, Danny the Champion of the World, which then stood, and perhaps still stands, as his most finished achievement. With that behind him and with the comforting degree of stability that he found at Cape’s he embarked upon a sequence of tales which – though unrelated – hang together as an oeuvre. This attains an imaginative coherence which had not before been present: the Roald Dahl whose international fame cumulated through The Twits (1980), George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981), The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), Matilda (1988), and Esio Trot (1990). It is a journey, almost, from darkness to light and, as with The Twits, each book called upon a particular sensibility for his illustrator in the handling of the resources of a monochrome palette in making pictures which would match the progress of the story. This is not a question of sharing glimpses of odd events but of a full-scale illustrative accompaniment. The Twits, George, and Esio Trot, being short books have illustrations on almost every page-opening, and the others – all over two hundred pages long – still carry a very full cargo of pictures. (In visiting the current exhibition it is therefore well to be aware that the pictures there chosen for display have something of the character of stills from a movie.)
While Dahl never accommodated himself to the demands made by picture-book stories he nonetheless did give his artist (and his publisher) the opportunity for the expansive display of colour illustrations in the verse anthologies Revolting Rhymes (1982) and Dirty Beasts (1983-4). Both of these volumes have little illustrative histories of their own: the first originally planned to be in black and white but then (as noted in the exhibition) converted by some ingenious photocopying into full colour; the second resulting in a hasty recall of Blake after the illustrations to the first edition by Rosemary Fawcett met with the author’s somewhat testy disapproval. (As it happens, Quentin was already working on illustrations for the book for a Dutch translation.) A successor to these rhyme books was Rhyme Stew (1989) which saw the transmogrification of sundry fables, folktales, and nursery rhymes into comic verses but was was illustrated only in monochrome.
The only other large-scale picture-story in colour was The Giraffe, and the Pelly, and Me (1985). Here the tallness of the leading member of the Ladderless Window-Cleaning Company demanded a very tall page which Blake exploited with panache, but both this book and its predecessor The Enormous Crocodile experienced unusual modifications to their physical appearance in the years after Dahl’s death. The Crocodile book was converted from its original quarto format to a tall octavo of double the length (sixty-four pages, including endpapers) with the original colour illustrations chopped about and rearranged, which results in what proves to be a more dramatic page-turner (although the gruesome picture of the crocodile as collapsed see-saw, shown in the exhibition, is unfortunately omitted). The giant thirty-two page Giraffe book was given a dainty sibling when the artist was called upon to remodel select images from the coloured first edition for reproduction in pen-and-ink with a grey wash. These were extended through some eighty pages of a new-set text in smaller format.
All the evidence – not least that in the printed books – suggests an untrammelled harmony in the Dahl/Blake partnership and the choice circa 1989 (after a competition) of Patrick Benson to illustrate The Minpins (which Dahl did not know was to be his final story) does not represent any kind of rift. His belief ‘that this particular story would need very detailed and beautiful illustrations – quite a different style to that of Quentin Blake’ confirms only a new ambition for that book and a continuing concern for the demands that his texts made on their illustrators – demands to which Blake had, through the hectic years after 1978, shown himself entirely equal.
II: The Illustrator at Work
Roald Dahl was right to say that the making of a picture-book text was ‘damned difficult’ and indeed most kinds of writing, conscientiously attempted, are likely to find themselves cursed by their authors sooner of later. But they have, at a conventional level, one mechanical virtue: you start the job at the top of the page and – however laboriously – work your way down to the bottom.
To the illustrator that simple procedure may seem enviable, for the damned difficulty of his work – even if he is illustrating his own text – arises from its involvement in a multiplicity of variables. If we assume, as is usually the case – not least in the oeuvre of Quentin Blake – that the raison d’être of illustration lies in its supplementary role alongside a given text then the work is conditioned by what the text and its physical production calls for. This is not just the demand that your pictures achieve a convincing reflection of what the text says, what also counts are such matters as your selection of subjects for your pictures, how those subjects are to be portrayed, what medium you may wish to use for your work, what constraints may be imposed upon you by the format, the text-layout, and other physical considerations arising from the editorial programme for the book and so on.
It was lucky for Dahl then that his companion-at-arms had had long experience of the business of conceiving and preparing illustrations and that the two of them were working for a congenial and enthusiastic publisher. For Blake the difficulties were less damnable than they might have been.
One overriding natural advantage that he had was that of temperament. From his earliest experiments as a schoolboy, submitting cartoons to Punch, he has delighted in comedy. He has recognised too the part that comedy has played in the history of his craft, mentioning pastmasters such as Rowlandson, Cruikshank, and Dicky Doyle, and thus, while he might not fully share Dahl’s entertaining prejudices [I write as one who sports a beard!] or his anarchic imagination, he was at home in the same part of the literary playground and the pen in his hand was ready to adapt itself to Dahl’s muse.
‘The pen in his hand’ was a crucial implement. He has written of his work, as he might have written of his honoured forebears – draftsmen all – that ‘it is the line that is bearing the message’ and his brilliance as a draftsman brings to his work for Dahl the energy and the expressiveness that do not so much complement as become an integral part of the text. That visual presence comes about also through his confessed search for spontaneity in the creation of illustration. He seeks to internalize the nature of the text with which he is presented (‘so much of the essence of drawing is in imagining what you are drawing, of trying to feel the balance, the gesture; of trying to become the subject.’) It is a process akin, as other artists have said, to creating a theatrical performance: ‘a sort of little theatre’ where the illustrator is helping to act out the drama of his author’s text.
If one accepts this view of the illustrator’s engagement with a given narrative then what follows in terms of illustrative progression becomes a fluent natural development. Blake has himself noted that a practical solution to any illustrative commission can come about once ‘the first finished picture’ is done. That is nothing so simple as jotting down an idea from a single incident but entails a cogitation on the complete text – whether his own or someone else’s – and the maturing, perhaps through many trials, of an image that will set the tone for all that follows. He notes too that the process can take a second direction, since the structure of that first picture may also dictate the way in which its companions may fit into the book’s format to meet the reader’s eye traversing the pages. The format may indeed be set by the publisher, or fall within only moderately flexible limits, but within those limits the illustrator needs freedom to judge how to exploit the potential of his original design.
The application of these near-abstract investigations of the illustrator’s craft is as well seen in the Blake/Dahl partnership as anywhere. (Blake has given a detailed account of significant moments in the collaboration on The BFG and Matilda in his book Words and Pictures pp.66-71.) Temperamental affinities were enhanced by the opportunity which Dahl’s stories gave for portraying what the characters were doing on the ‘little theatre’s’ stage and for following their actions rather than having too much concern for backdrops and scene-changes. In all the books from The Enormous Crocodile to Esio Trot Blake triumphs through bringing us into the lives of the characters, and not only does he do this through an exact imagination: the ‘first finished drawings’ of that devious, grinning crocodile, say, or of those dear, innocent souls Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver, but also through a varying technique. He may be given more to line-drawing than colouring but that has not precluded him from judging the contrasting values of his favoured watercolours in Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes and the stronger inks in The Enormous Crocodile. And it is also noteworthy that the media which he uses in the sequence of storybooks illustrated in monochrome are subtly varied to catch the nuances or mood of the narrative: the forceful pen work and the grey washes in The Twits, the stringy cartoon-like drawing in George’s Marvellous Medicine, the controlled variant uses of line and wash – sometimes tender in a way that could not occur in, say, The Twits – in The BFG and Matilda. Tom Maschler in his autobiography reports on a certain wariness that Dahl had of his illustrator in their early encounters but was quickly won over and, as time went on ‘was delighted anew at the manner in which Quentin had caught the essence of the characters so precisely’.
Footnote: Not the least of the pleasures of the present exhibition is the opportunity it offers to see the artist’s finished illustrations in their original form and, where possible, to compare the individual drawings with their placing and their reproduction in the printed books.
III: The Posthumous Illustrations
We cannot know what the future might have held for the partnership once The Minpins was completed just before Dahl died, but that event did not terminate Blake’s involvement with his work. The universal success of the collaboration both in artistic and commercial terms was hardly likely to see its abandonment through the sad loss of one of the two dynamic participants.
Initially there was a tidying up of loose ends, although that is too casual a phrase to describe the three unusual and charming texts that passed through Blake’s hands between 1991 and 1993. The first, The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, carries an afterword by Quentin (printed as a Foreword in the Penguin edition) in which he recalls something of his happy relationship with Dahl with whom he was working on this book when Dahl died. He emphasises particularly the author’s many gifts for charity and explains how this particular jeu d’esprit, which probably was prompted by the word-play of Esio Trot, was to have its rights auctioned to benefit the Dyslexia Institute (so he agreed for his rights to be auctioned too).
The second offering, which could initially be picked up free, was Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety. Here the author is, to his own embarrassment, found as a Giant Nanny TELLING CHILDREN WHAT TO DO, although, with Blake’s vigorous assistance, and some heartfelt reminiscences on the vanished pleasures of trains he converts the adjurations on Good Conduct into a cheering document. And the third was perhaps the most beautiful book in the whole partnership: My Year. Dahl had been working on this diary of the months during the last year of his life and each of the twelve entries is an engaging mixture of observation, reminiscence and cheerful conversational interjections (‘You won’t believe this but…’; ‘And by the way…’). It is altogether random, but revelatory of the writer’s way with and love of his world, and it is illustrated by Blake in pen and ink and watercolour washes which reflect the work’s almost philosophic calm. The examples from the book to be seen in the exhibition stand in notable contrast to the more manic drawings for the stories.
What is of consequence however at this point in the posthumous Blake/Dahl relationship is the commissioning of illustrations for those children’s books that had been published before The Enormous Crocodile, all of which had received the attentions of other artists. Unsurprisingly the process was begun by Jonathan Cape for whom in 1994 Blake re-illustrated Danny the Champion of the World. But within two years the Viking imprint of Penguin Books had filled in the rest of the gaps in the canon with illustrations by Blake to James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Magic Finger, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
(These five books had all been initially published in Britain by Allen & Unwin in a variety of formats and with a changeable choice of illustrators [see the tabulation appended to this essay]. In 1986 however several rapid changes in ownership occurred which need to be described. In that year A & U had been bought by Robin Hyman [who had earlier acquired the old established firm of George Bell to form Bell & Hyman] and under his Unwin Hyman imprint some new illustrations to the A & U books were commissioned. But in 1990 his company was absorbed by HarperCollins [which led to the odd HC reprints noted below] and by 1994 the control of rights had passed to Penguin with the resultant series of Blake commissions, and they, of course, would also publish the paperback editions of all Dahl titles through the Puffin imprint.)
There is scope for a magisterial thesis on the illustrative history of these five books which pose tantalizing questions relating to publishing practice as well as to the interpretive and artistic competence of book illustrators. The most remarkable example is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) Dahl’s second children’s book (not counting The Gremlins) which, like its predecessor, James and the Giant Peach (1961) was first published in New York. It was illustrated in line by Joseph Schindelman and remained solely an American publication until 1967 when Allen & Unwin brought out both James and Charlie in uniform editions: large square octavos illustrated by the English artist Faith Jaques. (Both the Schindelman and the Jaques editions exist in two forms, for not long after 1964 objections were raised over their portrayals of the Oompa-Loompas and revised illustrations had to be made to replace the original drawings.) So far as I know, no other change was made to the American Charlie, but in Britain the Jaques illustrations were dropped in favour of drawings by Michael Foreman in 1985. These were in turn superseded by the now standard Blake edition of 1995, although the black and white drawings for the octavo printing of that work were given a technical makeover in 1997 which enabled them to be used in a quarto edition with the images now garnished with watercolour by Vida Williams under the close supervision of Quentin.
Quentin Blake’s policy for his re-illustration of these early Dahl titles follows closely that which he followed for the Cape stories: a faithful reliance on pen drawing, but with the line supported to various degrees by grey wash or, in the case of The Magic Finger, what seems to be a pencil or lithographic crayon tint done over a grainy surface. Although they come from a separate publisher these re-interpretations are all of a piece with the illustrations done in partnership with the author and would surely have found him reiterating his delight in their precise mirroring of his ideas. Thus, in the case of that string of Charlies noted above, it would have been fascinating to hear his (we hope) temperate assessment of the interpretation that most satisfied him, particularly perhaps in the relatively few portrayals of the manic and slightly sinister Mr Wonka. If Blake is to be challenged at all it seems to me that it can only be by Schindelman whose delicate craftsmanship stands in sharp contrast to Blake’s but is equally valid.
It may be felt that, with the completion of ‘the canon’, Quentin Blake’s companionate involvement with Dahl’s writings was complete. Nevertheless the corpus of his drawings has provided a store of images from which can be drawn pictures to illustrate such spinoffs as The Roald Dahl Quiz Books or Charlie’s Secret Chocolate Book, while he may do new work at the publishing margins either through the design of dust jackets for new editions or the illustration of associated books such as Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl’s Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes and its successor by Lori-Ann Newman, Even More of the same. And recently he has produced single-colour caricatures drawn in bold lines as section-dividers for the seven parts of Songs and Verses (2005), whose texts (some of which are printed for the first time) are illustrated by a galaxy of contemporary talents.
Of especial interest in this category is The Roald Dahl Treasury which was the brainwave of Tom Maschler who saw it as a celebratory anthology, putting together extracts from almost all Dahl’s children’s books to make up a portrait of the author ‘warts and all’. Not only did he glean things from obscure sources, such as Dahl’s ‘Passport’ for Puffin Post, but he included some unpublished pieces and he brought in the services of favourite illustrators (Raymond Briggs, Babette Cole, Fritz Wegner…) who had had little opportunity to try their hand at the work of The Master. Quentin, who had converted many black-and-white originals into coloured drawings and added completely new illustrations as well, could hardly help being the most prominent contributor, but the volume did not so much show him as primus inter pares as emphasize the hospitality that the stories, the verses, and the reminiscences offer to all artists capable of sharing the author’s sparky imaginings.
Here follows a chronological listing of the books by Roald Dahl as illustrated by Quentin Blake indicating their mode of composition: (b/w = line drawings; col. = coloured). All titles from 1978 to 1994 are published by Jonathan Cape (consumed by Random House in 1987); all subsequent titles are published by Viking, a division of Penguin Books unless otherwise stated. In order to complete the chronology, details are included of works published previous to 1978 with illustrators who preceded Quentin Blake. Subsidiary works are indented and paperback reprints and playscripts have only been included in exceptional circumstances.
1978 The Enormous Crocodile col.
1999 ed. in octavo format with rearranged illustrations
1980 The Twits b/w
1981 George’s Marvellous Medicine b/w
1982 The BFG b/w
1982 Revolting Rhymes col.
1983 The Witches b/w
1984 Dirty Beasts col.
first published in 1983 with illustrations by Rosemary Fawcett
1985 The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me col.
1999 ed. in octavo format with illustrations adjusted in b/w
1988 Matilda b/w
1989 Rhyme Stew col.
1990 Esio Trot b/w
1991 The Guide to Railway Safety col.
1991 The Vicar of Nibbleswicke col.
also published in 1991 was The Minpins illustrated by Patrick Benson
1993 My Year col.
1994 Danny the Champion of the World b/w
1975 first published by Cape with illustrations by Jill Bennett b/w
1994 Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes compiled by Josie Fison and Felicity Dahl with photographs by Jan Baldwin. Jonathan Cape col.
[Blake’s illustrations have been devised to combine with the photographs to make single pictures and he gives an account of the process, as applied to this book and its 2001 sequel in Laureate’s Progress pp.45-48.]
1995 James and the Giant Peach b/w
1999 quarto edition with the illustrations coloured by Vida Williams with the artist’s approval
1961 first published NY: Knopf illus. Nancy Ekholm Burkert b/w + col.
1967 first UK ed. Allen & Unwin illus. Michel Simeon b/w
1990 second UK ed. Unwin Hyman illus. Emma Chichester Clark b/w
1991 a new issue of the above from HarperCollins
1995 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory b/w
1997 quarto edition with the illustrations coloured by Vida Williams with the artist’s approval
1964 first published NY: Knopf, illus. Joseph Schindelman b/w
c.1970 an ed. with revised illustrations
1979 the Puffin ed. of R.George’s dramatised version of the story appears to be the only occasion when one of Schindelman’sdrawings came out in an English publication
1967 first UK ed. Allen & Unwin, illus. Faith Jaques b/w
1973 first UK paperback ed., Puffin with revised illustrations
1978 issue in combined ed. with Glass Elevator (below)
1985 second UK ed. Allen & Unwin, illus.Michael Foreman b/w
1991 a new issue of the above from HarperCollins
1995 The Magic Finger b/w
1966 first published NY: Harper & Row, illus. William Pène du Bois b/w
1968 first UK ed., Allen & Unwin with the same illustrations
1974 first UK paperback ed., Puffin illus. Pat Marriot b/w
1989 second UK ed, Unwin Hyman, illus. Tony Ross b/w
1991 a new issue of the above from HarperCollins
1995 Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator b/w
1972 first published NY: Knopf illus. Joseph Schindelman b/w
1973 first UK ed. Allen & Unwin illus. Faith Jaques b/w
1978 issue in combined ed. with Chocolate Factory (above)
1986 second UK ed. Allen & Unwin, illus. Michael Foreman b/w
1991 a new issue of the above from HarperCollins
1996 Fantastic Mr Fox b/w
1997 quarto edition with illustrations coloured by Vida Williams with the artist’s approval
1970 first edition Allen & Unwin, illus. Allen Chaffin b/w
1974 first paperback ed. Puffin, illus. Jill Bennett b/w
1988 second ed. Unwin Hyman, illus. Tony Ross b/w
1991 a new issue of the above from HarperCollins
1997 The Roald Dahl Treasury. Jonathan Cape, illus. Quentin Blake and nine colleagues col. The volume includes nine previously unpublished pieces by the author.
2001 Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes compiled by Lori-Ann Newman, with an introduction by Felicity Dahl and photographs by Jan Baldwin [a sequel to the volume noted at 1994 above]
2005 Songs and Verses. Jonathan Cape, illus. Quentin Blake and twenty-five colleagues col. The volume includes eight previously unpublished pieces by the author.
Quentin Blake Laureate’s Progress Jonathan Cape, 2002
Quentin Blake ‘Research from an illustrator’s point of view’ Research in Illustration: conference proceedings Pt.2 Brighton Polytechnic, 1981 pp.25-49
Quentin Blake Words and Pictures Jonathan Cape, 2000
Douglas Martin ‘Quentin Blake’ The Telling Line: essays on fifteen contemporary book illustrators Julia MacRae Books, 1989 pp.243-263
Tom Maschler Publisher Picador, 2005
Jeremy Treglown Roald Dahl: a biography Faber & Faber, 1994
Despite their modest extent these notes have benefited from much help from several sources and I would like to express gratitude to Gillian Rennie and Elizabeth Hammill at Seven Stories, Jane Branfield at the Roald Dahl Museum and Dominic Gegory at Dahl and Dahl Ltd at Great Missenden, Alice Corrie at Random House, and Marilyn Dugdale among the Coach House cats of Hutton Roof. Quentin Blake has been particularly kind in encouraging my venture into unfamiliar territory and in casting an eye over the result and correcting a number of errors of fact and interpretation. Neither he nor anyone else can take blame for any errors and solecisms that remain.
Richmond in the North Riding of Yorkshire
Midsummer Day, 2007