BBC Documentary on Waugh’s Illustrator

The BBC has broadcast a delightful documentary on Quentin Blake, artist and illustrator. This is entitled Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life and debuted on Christmas Day on BBC2. It will be repeated on 6 January. Here’s an excerpt from a review in the Financial Times which describes Blake as:

… a small, stubbly 89-year-old, with sticky-up hair and straggly eyebrows who looks remarkably like a Quentin Blake drawing. Directed by Peter Sweasey, this charming one-off documentary finds the British writer and illustrator reflecting on his life while drawing key scenes from it across a 30-ft canvas. It’s a treat to watch the artist at work, and to see him create characters and stories out of the roughest of squiggles, his eyes twinkling all the while. Not for nothing has he described his style as “deceptively slapdash”…

The Guardian also ran a preview of the program. Here’s an excerpt from that:

…A new BBC documentary, Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life, allows for a wider appreciation, opening as it does with the 89-year-old illustrator confronted by 30ft of empty canvas and an invitation to fill it with an artwork that tells the story of his creative life. The broad brush of biography is soon filled in: his 1930s upbringing in suburban Sidcup, south-east London, from where Blake first got his work published in Punch while still at school; his decision to read English at Cambridge rather than going to art school; his 60s career as an in-demand illustrator (his Penguin paperback jackets for the likes of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim have an attractively louche appeal); and as an author himself, most notably A Drink of Water, made with the writer and longtime friend and collaborator, John Yeoman….

Although not mentioned in the TV documentary or in the above reviews, an earlier Guardian article explained how Blake’s work for Penguin brought him into contact with Waugh’s books. This was in a review of a recent book: The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot. See previous post. Starting in 1961, Blake created covers for the six Waugh novels reissued by Penguin in its newly-introduced Modern Classics series: Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, and The Loved One. After this fairly ambitious beginning, Blake’s drawings continued to occupy the cover space on additional printings of Waugh’s Penguins throughout the rest of the 1960’s. This extended not only to other books in the Penguin Modern Classics series such as Brideshead Revisited (1962) and Decline and Fall (1964) but to new additions to the Penguin contemporary list. These included Gilbert Pinfold in 1962, Helena in 1963 and each of the three war novels published separately in 1964. By the middle of the 1960s, a Blake drawing appeared on the covers of all Waugh novels then in print under the Penguin label. The earlier Guardian article concluded that “Blake, whose irreverent, scratchy style was already in place, captures Waugh’s mordant wit and keen sense of life’s absurdities…”

This uniform cover art must have been a successful marketing tool for Penguin because they repeated it in the 1970s with another artist. This was Peter Bentley and his partnership Bentley/Farrell/Burnett with their art deco/psychedelic covers. These included an even larger range of books than the Bentley-illustrated Modern Classics line, as Work Suspended and When the Going Was Good were added. Unfortunately, Henry Eliot’s recent book, noted previously, does not extend to the Bentley covers, since they were issued outside of the Penguin Modern Classics series. As time went on, Waugh’s books changed covers fairly frequently and re-entered the Modern Classics line.  Some appeared in other Penguin uniform series such as the Penguin Travel Library in the 1980s, and occasionally they were issued independently of series as, for example, in the case of TV or film tie-ins.

In 2011, Penguin, reportedly piqued that the assignment for the Complete Works series went to OUP, published all of Waugh’s books issued in his lifetime (fiction and non-fiction) in a handsome hardback series denominated “Penguin Classics”. These had uniform, light blue dust wrappers in a minimalist, tombstone design that was reminiscent of Penguin’s early orange covers. They were apparently not reprinted, as some volumes (e.g., Brideshead) quickly sold out and became collectibles and others appeared on the remainder shelves. Brideshead seems to be an exception, however, since it has reappeared in a separate hardbound edition for a new “Penguin Clothbound Classics” series as well as a new paperback edition in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

The Quentin Blake documentary will be repeated on BBC2 on Thursday, 6 January 2022 at 0:45a and can be streamed on the internet for the next 11 months on the BBC iPlayer at this link. A UK internet connection is required.

UPDATE (29 December 2021): Relevant information from and a link to a recent posting was added.

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