Thanks to his work with Roald Dahl, the illustrations of Quentin Blake are so well known that it’s easy to take them for granted. We all recognise the scratchy, loose, improvised lines and the good-natured mood. Yet his work’s range can be surprising.
The Photo, from the artist’s unpublished personal collection, is one of many images he’s created of birds. According to Blake, our feathered friends are “a kind of illimitable repertory company able to deal with all sorts of human situations”.
Like all great cartoons, The Photo seems to sum up something fundamental that we know about our fellow travellers. Yet while this scene suggests a stereotype – tourists on holiday – it’s also open-ended enough to set our imaginations to work.
The parents have bodies on which life’s disappointments and struggles are gently written, her slumped shoulders and shapeless clothes, his ungainly skinniness. The son combines their physical qualities in a soft echo of Larkin’s famous line about what your mum and dad bequeath to you. Its pathos is startling, yet lightly worn.