An exhibition of more than 100 new portraits by illustrator Sir Quentin Blake will open at the Coningsby Gallery in London on 8 March. The brand new body of work was created by the 87-year-old national treasure throughout 2019, solely using black oil pastels made by cult French brand Sennelier. The works range from naturalistic observations through to the more cartoonish figures that are instantly recognisable as his. All of the portraits were drawn from Blake’s imagination.
Blake cut his teeth creating illustrations for political magazine Punch (at the tender age of 16) before working for The Spectator and creating instantly recognisable illustrations for more than 300 books. He is perhaps best known for his illustrations for author Roald Dahl –it’s difficult to imagine the characters from books like The BFG, The Witches and Matilda without picturing his idiosyncratic pen and watercolours.
This exhibition, however, shows a different, more experimental approach to image-making. “I find it fascinating to see all the different ways I can use just one oil stick to create so many different artistic effects,” Blake said in a statement about the project’s origins. “I keep trying to stop doing the portraits, but I can’t – they just keep coming.”
Sennelier itself has had a long history working with artists. Founded in 1887, Cézanne, Gauguin, Monet, van Gogh, Modigliani, Kandinsky and Dali were all patrons of the French brand. It once created an extra-soft range of pastels for Degas, who claimed it was his favourite medium, and in 1949 developed the first professional-quality oil pastel for Picasso, who desired a material that he could use on any surface.
“I’ve had the stub of a Sennelier oil stick in my studio in Hastings for a very long time,” says Blake. “I had bought it on one of my regular trips to France, but just never used it. One day I picked it up and decided to see what it can do – I loved it and that is how all this started.”
The exhibition, called The Sennelier Portraits, runs from 8-28 March at The Coningsby Gallery, London.