Between them Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl, the Lennon and McCartney of children’s fiction, have done incalculable good for families and young people around the world.
But while their partnership sadly ended with Dahl’s death in 1990, Blake carried on, illustrating more stories (including his own), honouring Charles Dickens with postage stamps, designing grand public murals - and decorating the waiting rooms and treatment centres in hospitals across the UK and abroad.
Quentin Blake – As Large As Life is a new exhibition of the illustrations Blake has produced for four different clinics and hospitals here and in France. On show at The Foundling Museum until 15 April, it shows how Blake, with his trademark blend of sensitivity and wicked humour, produced over sixty works to be gazed at by patients in a variety of difficult circumstances.
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The first of four sets, Our Friends in the Circus (2009), was produced by Blake for a mental health ward for older adults at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. It depicts senior circus characters displaying their skills – a celebration of practise and the gifts that can come with advancing years.
Ordinary Life, given to the Vincent Square Eating Disorder Clinic in London in 2010, captures the quiet poetry and pleasures of everyday life as characters paint, walk pets and look at birds on their windowsill.
The third set is classic Blake territory. Plant Zog, created for the Alexandra Avenue Health and Social Care Centre in South Harrow during 2007, sees young people playing doctors and patient with a cast of alien creatures.
But it is the fourth set that proves the exhibition’s real highlight. Created for a maternity ward at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire in Angers, France in 2011, Mothers and Babies Underwater feature some of the most vivid and tender paintings of Blake’s career.
Showing parents and babies swimming towards each other underwater, it’s a beautiful metaphor for the moment of mutual love that occurs when a mother and child see each other for the first time and enter a new world together. The paintings are a calming presence in the hospital’s midwife station, father’s room and delivery suites.
“I think the very presence of pictures helps to make being in, or visiting a hospital a more normal, less alien experience,” Blake explains on the museum's website.
“What I have tried to include is a certain amount of some interesting activities, and some suggestions of the little drama of relationships, so that the viewers - especially any who have to wait - may feel the desire to go on looking and perhaps even to speculate about the stories happening in front of them.”
Foundling Museum director Caro Howell said Blake’s contributions are part of a tradition of artists making works for hospital settings that goes back 270 years to William Hogarth.
“Quentin Blake’s vision of the world has accompanied generations from infancy to adulthood, so much so that he is part of our cultural DNA,” she added.
“This exhibition demonstrates his unique gift for combining humour, compassion, observation and the imaginary.”