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Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand at the Fitzwilliam Museum, or Markgraf Is A Terrible Date

2013 May 30
  • Due to copyright, we’ve not been able to show a lot of the paintings described in this post – so we encourage you to click the links, and view them on Quentin Blake’s website! They should all open in new windows, for SMOOTH, UNINTERRUPTED READING.
  • Content warning: mention of eating disorders.

It was at once a brilliant and thoroughly embarrassing afternoon.

I came home exhausted and tearful, clutching a new book and my partner’s sleeve.  “But I can’t write about that!” I protested.  “What would I draw for it?”

Hello, BadRep readers.  I’m here to tell you about the time I embarrassed myself in a museum.

Image: Kirsty Connell (credit link at end of article)

Image: Kirsty Connell (credit link at end of article)

I live in Cambridge, which is a nice place, and contains the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is also nice.  Startlingly nice, in fact.  Long warrens of gold-framed paintings, glass cabinets full of glittering treasures, and ancient wooden tables polished to a mirror sheen with little toblerone notices on them telling you to keep your paws off, thank you.

There’s marble busts that I could look at for years and never get old, myriad hoards of coins, terrible thorny ranks of daggers and swords, medieval Christian bling and a glorious rotating selection of temporary exhibitions.

Their temporary exhibitions are spectacular.  They recently had one on Chinese tomb treasures that I saw posters for when I was visiting London.  “I’ve been to that!” I exclaimed, pointing at a poster on the Tube.  But no-one was impressed, for they were cultured London types with the British Museum on their doorstep, and I am a scruffy Cambridge yokel with orange hair and visible underpants.

The most recent standout exhibit – which was so busy they had to implement a timed ticket system – was the Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand exhibition.

You all know who Quentin Blake is, of course.  He illustrated all of Roald Dahl’s books for children and many other things besides.  I wasn’t very familiar with his “many other things besides”, though, and that was what this exhibit showed me.

I didn’t know, for example, that he has done public paintings for hospitals.  There were many of his maternity-unit paintings, all involving cheerful mothers having fun in a variety of scenes (some are underwater for a water-birthing unit) and all very sweet and soothing to look at.

And there was this one that made me lose my shit comprehensively.

I was already on delicate emotional footing because I have a lot of feelings about Quentin Blake, and then I came across this painting he’d done for the Vincent Square eating disorder treatment unit in London.

The painting, titled Ordinary Life No. 8, is of a young woman in her hospital room in a gown, feeding birds on her windowsill through the open sash window.  She looks happy, and all the birds are eating seeds.

This just in: I have just started crying writing that paragraph.

I am at work.

She’s in her room, where she has to stay until she’s better, but the birds can go where they please; she is happy to feed the birds, and the birds are happy to be fed.  Oh my god, there are so many things in that piece that kind of punched me in the heart until I burst into a fire hydrant of noisy tears in the middle of the reflective silence of the exhibit.

Some very well-behaved children turned around and scowled at me.  My partner ushered me on.  The next piece was from the lithograph series Girls and Dogs, of a young girl in a red dress, happily showing a gigantic pitch-black terrifying-looking wolf monster a painting she’d done.  The tears came again, only worse.

And then, at the end, there was an illustration for The Boy In The Dress (a children’s novel by David Walliams, of all people) and it was all too much and I had to leave.

“Mummy,” said a small child with crisp, angelic gold ringlets bearing aloft a blue ribbon, “That man is crying”.

Blake’s paintings, with their characteristic loose, expressive style – fluid washes of watercolour and ink contained by haphazard spidery cages of scratchy black ink somehow conspiring to be more life-accurate than anything photorealism could ever offer – capture and reflect simple happiness and freedom.

I don’t want to use words like “innocence”, because I don’t like its implications of fetishising a lack of knowledge.  Blake’s paintings are very canny; their veneer of simplicity disguising a great depth of self-awareness and knowledge of the subject.

The young girl showing the big wolf her painting isn’t afraid of the big wolf.  The big wolf likes her painting, and looms in front of her with giant, masonry-nail fangs bared in an appreciative grin.  She has nothing to fear from her playmate, however, because she is brave and has made friends with something that others would find terrifying and avoid.

The young woman in her hospital room is finding joy in feeding the birds.  The birds don’t know why she’s in hospital, or of her own difficulties with food; they just like seeds and she’s put some out for them.

I bought a copy of The Boy In The Dress on the way home.  An entire exhibition of mostly women, magic and birds and I end up with a book about a boy who likes to wear dresses.  That’s top marketing, that.

I’ll let you know how it is.

The Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand exhibition closed in mid-May, but you can still check out the following:

Image of the museum banner by Kirsty Connell on Flickr.

One Response leave one →
  1. kaberett permalink
    May 30, 2013

    WASN’T IT JUST LOVELY. I wept everywhere on it too.

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