Quentin Blake: Life Under Water – A Hastings Celebration

Jerwood Gallery, Rock-A-Nore Road, Hastings, until Sunday, September 6

FOR his first collaboration with Jerwood Gallery, illustrator and former Children’s Laureate Quentin Blake created an introduction to the artists in the permanent collection, set against a Hastings beach backdrop.

And the coastal town is central to his second Jerwood exhibition, Life Under Water, which is part of the Rock-A-Nore Road gallery’s summer Festival Of The Sea.

“I have noticed there are two groups of pictures,” says the Hastings-based artist as the 24 new works are being hung.

“Some are ordinary people in Hastings – school kids, middle-aged ladies and ladies going in a wheelchair along the front.

“Others are about the Hastings urge to dress up – there are pirates, bikers and images from Jack In The Green [the annual May bank holiday festival].

“I wanted a variety of people – it’s what is interesting to me. They aren’t individuals drawn from life, they are drawn from a kind of memory, and things I have seen over time.”

The style of the pictures – essentially floating under the water - allows him to draw his characters in unusual shapes and positions. It was a style he first investigated in a series of pictures he created for mental health institutions.

“I realised it was a good way to take people out of everyday surroundings,” he says. “You have to slightly reorientate yourself – which makes the viewer concentrate a bit more.”

This could apply to much of his style of illustration – particularly in the case of his memorable images for Roald Dahl – such as The Twits standing on their heads.

“I think finding a way of getting hold of things creeps up on you in a way,” he says. “I’m always surprised – you have to start drawing and be open to thoughts. It’s about seeing what happens really.”

As an illustrator part of this came from the authors he worked with – most famously the much-loved Dahl.

“With Dahl everything was done by action,” he says. “I was never at a loss for something to draw.

“A good collaboration is with a writer who has a sense of the visual – I’ve co-worked with John Yeoman who sometimes does the roughs for me!

“With something like Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book [a beautiful and heart-breaking picturebook penned by Rosen after the loss of his son] the ideas were really there for an illustrator - when you drew them you realised what they really meant. That visual sense that some people have is immensely helpful.”

Blake’s long history as an illustrator was explored in the inaugural exhibition at The House Of Illustration, near London’s King’s Cross last year.

The exhibition, which saw Blake dissect his methods across a dozen of his works and collaborations including The Sad Book and his own silent tale Clown, is now on tour going to the north of England, Cardiff and Mexico.

And Blake hopes to set up a similar exhibition looking at his larger-scale projects for public spaces, hospitals and museums in the future.

For now he is juggling both aspects of his career – admitting he has an art in public spaces and a new book project on the go, but is unable to talk about either.

He has enjoyed creating something new for the art gallery.

“It has always surprised me how many artists there are in Hastings,” he says. “Nobody tells each other they are here – I’ve known a few RAs who have moved here. Wally Faulkes, the satirical cartoonist who used to sign his name as Trog, had a house in the old town, and the very good cartoonist Hector Breeze was here too.

“Hastings is getting a bit better known as a place for artists, without becoming well-behaved or losing its character.

“It’s nice to have the Jerwood at the end of my road – in a curious way it feels like it belongs to me!”

Open Tues to Sun and bank hols 11am to 5pm, tickets £8/£3.50. Call 01424 728377 or visit jerwoodgallery.org