Blake's ecstasy of being

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Quentin Blake, for decades now considered a British national treasure, has received honors and awards for his prolific flow of children's book illustrations. Light heartedness pervades his drawings, but he is also a serious campaigner for greater recognition of his chosen art form - not that children's book illustrating has no tradition. Blake works with engaging freshness as an outstanding modern contributor to a long line of British illustrators, reaching at least back to Tenniel and Lear in Victorian times.

One aspect of Blake's enchanting vision is a penchant for birds such as cockatoos, ostriches, jackdaws, owls, herons, cranes, ravens - birds that are scraggy, mischievous, surreal, and funny. His collaboration with author John Yeoman has encouraged this, with titles like "Featherbrains" (1991) and "Up With Birds" (1996). He has illustrated Aristophanes' play, "The Birds." He has also made many pictures for Joan Aiken's stories about a girl named Arabel and her raven, Mortimer.

Arabel is just one of Blake's depictions of very small, very active children. Almost cartoon figures, they ramp and romp harum-scarum through sub-adult regions - pretty much a lawlessness unto themselves, fellow creatures to his birds.

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The design for a book cover shown here (for a 1972 American edition of "Arabel's Raven") depicts the diminutive partnership of child and bird in action. They adore each other. Mortimer brings his friend daffodils - undoubtedly stolen out of a vase. He perches on a coal scuttle (in which he is shown asleep in another illustration - a suitably black, dusty bed). The floor is littered with pecked and broken fragments, typical of Mortimer's mayhem. He and Arabel inhabit the same carefree, messy, anticipatory universe.

In his book "Words and Pictures" (2000), Blake speculates that children may like his drawings because "they are like something happening." They are "a sort of little theatre." Of one of his most enchantingly disruptive children, he observes: "Simkin acts his life: He is such a nuisance simply because, like most children, he is in the ecstasy of being." Blake - and his birds - are, I suspect, in just the same happy state.

This illustration is part of an exhibition at the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, Scotland, until March 26. It is from The Quentin Blake Gallery of Illustration, a gallery without a permanent home yet.

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