Penguin Random House has celebrated 50 years of publishing Quentin Blake with an event which the illustrator described as the “most rewarding experience” of his life.
Coinciding with the publication of Roald Dahl’s Billy and the Minpins, which Blake has illustrated, Penguin Children's m.d. Francesca Dow and Children's Laureate Lauren Child paid tribute to the 84-year-old and “the colour, the life and joy” of his creations.
The afternoon tea in London’s South Kensington on 19th September included a special Billy and the Minpins cake as well as champagne, scones and macaroons.
Dow said: “He was the first ever children’s laureate [in 1999] and set in motion what Lauren is setting beyond us. His magic spreads beyond here, he’s also loved in France… he was awarded a Legion d'Honneur [in 2014] which is a real achievement especially for someone who isn’t French.”
She told Blake that he has “brought to life” so many characters through his dedicated work. She said: “You’ve described your illustration as free-wheeling, a spur-of-the-moment type thing but we know how much work goes into making that work, in that free-wheeling way you’ve brought to life so many characters which have become parts of our lives, our friends lives and our children’s lives.”
Child, who was revealed as the new Children's Laureate in June, also emphasised the accessibility of Blake’s work.
She said: “His illustrations allowed me ‘a way in’. What he’s so brilliant at, it’s not just a friendliness and emotion, you really connect immediately with the character.
“When I look at all of his work…everywhere there is this warmth and this communication with the reader, I think that’s what is so brilliant about the connection between Roald Dahl and Quentin.”
Child believes Blake’s illustrations form a “bridge” to the darker elements of Dahl’s stories. She said: “What Roald Dahl does is complex, like modern-day fairy tales but they are also quite dark, you need a bridge – Quentin brings wit and emotion. They are terrifying but also ridiculous and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. I have never met someone who doesn’t love his illustrations.”
She added: “I would like to say thank you for everything you’ve given the world of illustration and particularly me.”
The speeches concluded with one from Blake himself, in which he said the event had been “really the most rewarding experience that I think I’ve ever had”.
He said: “It really is extraordinary to see so many people that I like and work with over a long time. There are two anniversaries which have come together here. Having the chance to illustrate this book (Billy and the Minpins) 40 years after The Enormous Crocodile (Puffin) when I didn’t expect to do another. It’s also 50 years of working with Penguin.”
He described how Billy and the Minpins, which was published to coincide with Roald Dahl Day (13th September), contained all the “energy and humour” associated with Dahl as well as the as “the extraordinary poetry, not in the words but the situation”. It was announced in February that Dahl's final book, The Minpins, would be resissued by Puffin featuring new illustrations by Blake.
Blake also paid tribute to a former Puffin editor and publisher at Puffin, Kaye Webb, with whom he worked closely.
He said of Webb, who died in 1996, “I have a lot of memories of Kaye Webb who was marvellous at getting you to do things. I once found myself painting the side of a caravan for her. She was direct but real… she spoke to children as equals.”
To conclude the speech, he showed off some of the first illustrations he had done for PRH: a cover of Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh with a letter addressed to him dated 3rd March 1964 and Good Morning Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton(first published by Penguin Books in 1961).
He was presented with flowers and a box of letters written to him from the Penguin Random House team.