Alexis Burgess, founder of Burgess Studio, tells the fascinating story of how Quentin Blake and James Blake came to collaborate on artwork for the musician’s third album, The Colour in Anything. The ongoing collaboration has so far seen Quentin create billboards, music videos and the album cover; he is currently also working on a poster for James’ upcoming US tour.
We have been lucky to work with both Quentin Blake and James Blake for several years now, and what has struck me about them (beyond the obvious point that that share a surname) is how similar they are in nature. Both are singularly focused on the thing that they are passionate about, to the exclusion of most of the other stuff that preoccupies people. For James it’s music and for Quentin it’s drawing. (Quentin is 83 and still drawing pretty much all day every day, and it’s the same with James… he just wants to make music.) If that makes them sound myopic I’m expressing it badly; they are very interested in lots of different things, but all the stuff I seem to waste my time with they just don’t engage in. And they are both unerringly polite and kind; I suppose genuinely confident people are. I thought they would like each other.
About two years ago I spoke with Dan Foat (James’ manager) and James about the possibility of a collaboration between him and Quentin. I had a copy of Patrick, the first book Quentin wrote and illustrated himself, in 1968.
It’s about a man who buys a magic violin, and when he plays it strange things happen. It’s both innocent and subversive — it was the end of the 60’s and the trees are growing jellies and buttered toast. Patrick reminds me of James.
I then asked Quentin if he would consider reinventing Patrick for a real musician, James, and he said that he might. So we arranged a meeting at Quentin’s studio, and it went very well. They talked about the process of making creative work and it was easy to forget that there is fifty six years between them.
“There was a meeting between us,” Quentin said. “I am a sort of musical illiterate in that though I listen to music, I don’t really know what is happening. Nevertheless I can respond to atmosphere and James and I also have, I think, some similar ideas about how the imagination works.”
At the end of the meeting James gave Quentin some music and we talked to him about formats. The original plan had been for it to be a gatefold EP, a short run of vinyl between albums.
When the artwork from Quentin came back it was a huge surprise. Firstly, for somebody who doesn’t draw particularly figuratively, he nailed James. It looks more like James than most photographs. Secondly we got an adult Patrick, when the psychological landscape has changed. It’s no longer toast in the trees, it’s naked women and dystopian crows. But James still looks innocent, and unafraid. It’s very reflective of the record.
“Of course the landscape which I drew for his music is very different from the one that I did for children,” continues Quentin. “I am not sure whether it is James having an effect on the landscape or the landscape having an effect on him but it was wonderful for me to draw those dark cloudy vistas and the strange trees inhabited by crows and young women. I am not someone who is eager to produce a likeness but I hope James’s stance and manner is reflected in the silhouette figures that I drew walking through these landscapes. At the time I produced the pictures James had not completed his work on the music and – it may just be fanciful – but it would be nice to think that they had perhaps contributed in a small way to what we eventually hear.”
In the end James decided he would like to use it as the artwork for the full album. He also decided he didn’t want to do any videos for the release at all, so we went back to Quentin and asked it he could make some colour washes for us, so we could make very slow moving ink skies to put up on youtube for each track. They move, but only fractionally. I really like them. They are about the most Patrick thing out there.