A conversation with Sir Quentin Blake.

The face above might not be familiar to you, but the work of the man definitely will be. It's Sir Quentin Blake, and 'the work' - well, you know it. You can't recall Roald Dahl without bringing Blake's illustrations to mind, and I can recite his own children's books by heart. ('Mister Magnolia has only one boot' etc.) Instantly recognisable, internationally respected, he's part of our cultural heritage. I met Sir Quentin Blake in a GP's surgery, and unless you are a GP, that's not your standard meeting place to talk to a National Treasure. It wasn't accidental and I wasn't there for medical conversation either, that would have been weird and entirely prurient on my part.  I met  to talk to him about some rather special pictures that hang on the wall. This is a record of our conversation. 

We started by moving our chairs to face in the same direction, so that while we talked we could look at the work he’s made for this space. It’s a series of four pictures, each a different single colour palette, hung irregularly so the horizon in each picture lines up. The effect is a panoramic landscape filled with familiar Blake-style characters beside a river; it moves from young boaters in the picture on the left, to older picnickers in the one on the right. At this point, I must apologise for my dreadful photo-taking abilities. My skills lie in other areas. (Also not layout.) 

The journey - young to old - is a simple visual metaphor that makes perfect sense in this context. Three pictures are above and on the water; the fourth picture hangs beneath the others, because it takes us below the surface. It’s of a swimmer, gleefully diving down, limbs and hair free-floating into murkier blue ink. The mildly contorted shape that a body makes underwater is vividly recognisable and charmingly created in what looks like a few simple strokes. As a swimmer myself, this is the one that my eye is constantly drawn to. But what’s it doing here? 

We’re all familiar with Sir Quentin’s distinctive and renowned literary work. Less-well known is the fact that he regularly contributes pieces of art for hospitals, under the auspices of the Nightingale Project, a charity who believe that art can make a fundamental contribution to the healing process. You might imagine that if you’d led his life you’d spend your 70s resting on a laurel or five. Not him. He can remember the exact day this all started. “It was on my birthday, December 16th 2005, and they asked if I’d like to do something for the wards” (for elderly mental health patients). “Those were the first ones I did”. These wonderful pictures showed elderly people having fun, sitting on branches of trees, laughing; there’s one of an elderly couple arm-wrestling. This work was followed by contributions to children’s medical units in the UK and Paris – he spends a lot of time in France – and an Eating Disorders Unit in London. 

Sir Quentin starts by talking to some of the patients involved. “What you do is, you go into the situation and you talk to a few people and sniff around and sort of get a feeling of what might be appropriate. I remember one [in the ED unit] saying you can draw anything you like but not too much food because I’ve got enough on my plate already.  So food is in there but sort of incidentally. Suggestions of it.” Copies of four of the ED Unit pictures hang in the reception area of the surgery; one of them is a girl feeding crumbs to the birds, another is of two girls, the little one smiling up to the older, both holding out the corners of their frocks. “I got a very nice response from one young woman who had been anorexic” he said “who was seeing what I’d meant to happen.  How they’re [the pictures] not disapproving, they accept people how they are. She wrote ‘That was the little girl I used to be, and lost’. The spontaneity of it, she couldn’t get back to”. 

We come round to the work in front of us and Sir Quentin realised he’d always been drawing people swimming. Something about the flow of life? “Possibly” he says. Swimming does hold metaphors, and for him they were different metaphors each time. He’d done some drawings for the Gordon Mental Health Hospital that featured people fully dressed, in ordinary everyday clothes, “swimming about under the water with fish and crocodiles and things like that. One of the advantages of drawings is that you get into metaphors very easily so there are these people, perfectly ordinary people like us, in this strange situation.”  And swimming provided the answer in his next project too, a maternity unit in Angers, France. This is a series of beatifically simple line drawings of women and their babies swimming towards each other underwater, that first greeting, that surprise and delight. 

In these, “the thing about the swimming in a way was the freedom really.” Is that what it means to you? I ask. “In pictures, yes” he laughs. “I don’t mind being in water. I hover. I don’t sink, that’s a good thing, I suppose”.  

The swimming metaphors in the doctor’s surgery pictures seem readily definable. About going below the surface, about the interactions of the physical, the emotional and psychological. The fourth picture particularly delves beneath “down to darkness” finishes Sir Quentin. It has a sense of  ‘what’s going on down here?’ “She’s diving into herself, really” he adds. It has particular resonance as his GP is a keen swimmer. So you’ve captured personal philosophies, work and pleasure -  good job, Sir Quentin, I joke. “It was a pleasure to have been given the opportunity” he replies, with humility.  

I would have said that people were lucky to have him, but he sees it the other way round. “I had that meeting on December 16th. I might have missed it. It opened up a whole lot of things”.  And he continues on this journey: his next project is for Great Ormond Street, decorating a room for parents who have a child that won’t live. “Now that is a challenge” he says. But “you can get an imaginative involvement in something you don’t actually know anything about. In the Angers maternity ones, I was looking at the pictures with one of the midwives and she said [of the mother’s expression] ‘How did you know that?’ and of course, knew what? I was reading a Latin writer saying you can only describe certain emotions if you experience them yourself but I don't think that’s true actually.” 

The pictures on the surgery wall haven’t been there long enough to quantify what effect they’ve had on patients but the links between art and health are well-documented. His work seems well-suited to the task – personable and immediate, quickly comic but with a more meaningful undertow. “Drawing is a language. It speaks to people” says Sir Quentin. Maybe because it’s vernacular, I suggest. “I’m wary of saying it’s therapeutic” he says. “But there’s hope”. 

Hope runs through all this, through his delight at life and sense of good humour. He’s a kind and gentle man; it seems an extraordinarily generous gift he’s giving to hundreds of patients and hospital staff yet he sees it as an opportunity afforded him. “I’ve been tremendously fortunate” he says, of his working life “and I’m fortunate being active now, and I hope to go on being so”. We’re lucky to have him. The hope resides with us.

PS. Sorry again about the pics. Hope they give a good sense of what he's done. 

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