Quentin Blake: How I created Matilda

Quentin Blake: How I created Matilda

One difference between the way that a writer works and that of an illustrator is that the writer can put in description when he feels like it. When a character is introduced he can say what he or she is wearing, and doesn’t have to refer to it again. (He can even mention, on page 293, that the hero has a moustache of which no mention has been made up to that point. It pays to remain on the alert.)

Drawing the BFG

It was this that provided the problem with Roald Dahl's BFG. In the original version of the manuscript the giant was wearing a big leather apron and knee-length boots. They were only mentioned once but naturally they had to appear in every one of my drawings. Roald began to feel that the apron got in the way as the giant moved and ran and jumped; that it was more an encumbrance than a help; and that the boots were just visually dull.

So round the dining table we sat down to re-think the costume, and I started (as I remember, then and there) to make new sketches to his suggestions. In the end the item that was left unresolved was what the BFG should wear on his feet. Several days later I received through the post a rather oddly shaped and oddly wrapped brown paper parcel… Unwrapping it revealed a large sandal of a type unfamiliar to me; I soon discovered that it was Norwegian and one of Roald’s own.

If you want to know what it looked like you can see in the pictures; it is what the BFG wears. Apart from being the happiest solution, the arrival of the sandal, together with other reworking and discussions, brought home to me the closeness of the author to his creation. It didn’t, as has on occasion been claimed, lead me to base the BFG on Dahl; the BFG has his own personality and appearance; but there are resemblances and affinities, and being aware of that helped me, I believe, to give him more depth and humanity.

Miss Trunchbull

When I was at work on the drawings for Matilda a similar process took place. The problem was the dreadful headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. In my drawing I had carefully followed the description of this frightening figure; she wore a shirt, collar and tie, belt and boots. Roald had exaggerated; I had exaggerated; what resulted would scarcely have been a flattering portrait of a South American general. It was too much.

Roald set us off again in search of a character who was formidable but at least human. He found a photograph of someone he had in mind when first imagining Miss Trunchbull. The shirt became a garment which was identifiably feminine; the boots became shoes; she developed a stern coiffure; and it became possible to believe that she had once been an Olympic athlete – even if one who was prepared to seize little girls by their pigtails and throw them into the middle distance.

By comparison it seems to me even now that there would be practically nothing to say about Matilda herself. But looking back  at my preliminary drawings I can see that she too developed. The early drawings gave her the childlike face which would really belong to her age; but Matilda is a little girl with an unusual brain and extraordinary capabilities, which I tried to suggest by giving her a face which avoided the characteristic, rounded cheeks and forehead and suggested an older child.

She still has to be very small to emphasise the contrast with the adults. Dahl observed to me in a letter at the time:

“What particularly delights me is the fact that you have accentuated, by all sorts of subtle juxtapositions, the tininess of Matilda.

“Nearly everyone wanted her bigger, but the whole charm of it is that she is so frail and titchy.”


Taken from Quentin Blake: Words and Pictures, published by Tate Publishing.

Quentin Blake: Beyond the Page and Three Little Owls by Emanuele Luzzati, translated by John Yeoman and illustrated by Quentin Blake are also both out from Tate Publishing.


WIN: Words and Pictures and Beyond the Page