History and Illustration: Quentin Blake

Primary History article

By Quentin Blake, published 30th July 2008

When, at your invitation, I bring together the words ‘History' and ‘Illustration', two images spring immediately to mind. One is John Leech's illustrations to The Comic History of England (1847-1848); the other is the drawings that Ronald Searle brought back from being a prisoner of war of the Japanese a hundred years later. I am not sure why I think of these, in some apparently random fashion, and, as I know nothing about the teaching of history, I don't know if any use can be made of them; what they do exemplify, at least, is two different approaches. Leech is re-enactment, an imaginative involvement; in this case made memorable by comedy, though any other mood is possible - elegantly romantic, for instance, as in Boutet de Monvel's fine illustrations to the story of Joan of Arc. Searle, by contrast, is the artist as witness - in his case, a young artist in the most appalling of circumstances and presented with the most challenging of subjects...

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