Sometimes teachers don’t just inspire their students, but go on to work with them – like illustrators Sir Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark. By Etan Smallman
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It was almost 40 years ago now, but Emma Chichester Clark can still vividly recall her first illustration classes with her former teacher Sir Quentin Blake.
The pair met when he assessed her work as an external examiner, when she was coming to the end of her art degree at Chelsea. She then followed him to the Royal College of Art for her master’s course in the late 1970s, just when he was beginning his defining work with the children’s author Roald Dahl.
Her overriding memory is of the “ghastly silence” that would fill the studio as he slowly perused her creations. “And he would say something – but it might be a year later, after you’d ripped the piece up!”
She quickly adds that the description “sounds unfair” and she puts it down to his former shyness. However, Sir Quentin doesn’t demur. “That’s one of my shortcomings,” he admits. “There probably was silence, but it wasn’t meant to be ghastly.”
That scene – of a mute Blake impassively examining her sketches – has been repeated countless times over the years. Her ex-tutor is often the first person Chichester Clark turns to in a moment of artistic crisis, a fact attested to by priceless pieces of fax paper she has stuffed away at home.
“Sometimes, when I was struggling, I’d moan about it to Quentin and the fax machine would go ‘ping!’ And out would come rolls and rolls of fax paper with roughs,” she says as the two softly spoken artists, now 61 and 83, reminisce in London’s French Institute, above the children’s bibliothèque recently named after Blake.
The relationship – of intimidated student and iconic teacher – has certainly morphed over four decades. Now they are equal partners.
They have just brought out Three Little Monkeys, an anarchic picture book that tells the story of a trio of pet primates who wreak havoc across the home of Hilda Snibbs. It was written by Blake and illustrated by Chichester Clark, who has achieved her own fame and awards with her Blue Kangaroo series.
Blake has written dozens of his own titles before, but this marks the first time he has penned a story for anyone else. He says he was never tempted to illustrate it with his own art: “I couldn’t imagine what it would be like.”
Chichester Clark “doesn’t remotely believe” such a claim. “That’s what I kept thinking when I was doing it, ‘Oh God everyone’s going to wish Quentin had illustrated this!’” There does appear to be a nod to Blake in the monkeys’ eyes, but otherwise, Chichester Clark has been determined to carve her own stylistic path.
After seeing the first roughs, Blake said of his former student’s image of Hilda: “Oh, I imagined she might be a bit more bosomy and flouncy.”
“I immediately saw a Quentin person, all flowery with a large bosom,” says Chichester Clark. “And I thought, ‘Well I’m not having that!’ And so she got modelled on Kiki de Montparnasse, who was a working girl in Paris in the ‘30s.”
Blake’s mentee may not have adopted his inimitable spontaneous, scratchy style but she says there are hundreds of lessons she has learnt from him.
One of the most memorable was designed to give his students confidence talking about money. He would tell them to stand in front of the mirror and grandly announce that he sometimes charged: “A THOUSAND POUNDS!”
“Of course, I wouldn’t accept as little as that now!” says Blake.
“I have to say,” says Chichester Clark, “if I hadn’t met Quentin, I really think I’d be living in a skip. I just wouldn’t have got anywhere.”
The relationship, however, was far from one-way. Blake may have been well on the path to becoming Britain’s most beloved artist – resulting in him becoming the country’s first children’s laureate in 1999 and being knighted in 2013 – but he had never studied full-time at an art school himself and was as terrified of his classes as they were of him.
“I mean, she talks about the ‘pathetic student’, but when you’re speaking to somebody like her, you’re the one who feels pathetic, you see.”
Blake has even paid tribute to his former student in print, in 2004’s Angel Pavement, which features two girls who give a street artist a Magic Pencil that draws lines in the sky. The blonde angel is Emma.
“It’s a kind of metaphor – they lifted my braces, you know, and helped me fly through the air.”
Chichester Clark went on to teach too. And both artists are equally unimpressed by the recent news that history of art at A-level is to be axed amid a general sidelining of creative teaching.
Blake criticises politicians for only encouraging students “to do the things which, in a narrow-minded way, you think are useful”.
He explains that he studied English at university. “And then I went and did something completely different. That’s probably a contribution to the economy,” he says with immense understatement.
“Also, in that commercial, governmental way, we go round the world – we’re an export as well. I mean we shouldn’t be, because we’re just messing about.”
His message to ministers is simple: “Don’t be frightened.”
“These adventurous, innovative things can’t be given an account of in statistics, and that scares them,” he explains. “Art makes people’s minds work and have ideas about things. The politicians can’t see that.”
‘Three Little Monkeys’ is out now (HarperCollins, £12.99)
How other teaching relationships have become working ones
Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman:
Atwood, the 76-year-old Booker-winning Canadian author, began mentoring Alderman, a 42-year-old novelist from London who has written a best-selling zombie video game, thanks to an initiative by Rolex.
It was fruitful. The pair went on to write Happy Zombies Sunrise Home, a two-handed online novella – each inspired by the other as they worked on alternate chapters.
“Our pairing could have been a disaster,” says Atwood. “But we spend all our time laughing our heads off.”
Channing Robertson and Elizabeth Holmes:
A 19-year-old Holmes quickly drew comparisons with Steve Jobs when she started her own tech company, Theranos, to revolutionise blood testing. Like Jobs, she was a college drop-out.
But when Holmes quit Stanford University, she took her chemical engineering professor with her. Robertson ended a 35-year teaching career to sit 20 yards away from Holmes in her office.
The story hasn’t ended quite as they’d hoped, however. The company – once valued at $9bn – is currently mired in controversy over working practices and the effectiveness of Holmes’s technology.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo:
The man and woman who would become Mexico’s most famous artists met as teacher and student in Mexico City in 1922, when Kahlo was just 14.
She would spend hours watching the muralist at work and he later advised her on her paintings – before the two fell madly in love and married, despite a 20-year age gap.
They also collaborated in the studio and Rivera said Kahlo was “the most important fact in my life”.