Olivia Ahmad remembers the first time she saw the House of Illustration, because there wasn’t much to see. “It was a building site really, there wasn’t a floor and there were wires hanging out of the ceiling. It was a shell so I had to do a lot of logistical stuff, making sure there were lights and that kind of thing…”
But the newly-appointed curator knew that these particular challenges were the end stages of a process that began at a dinner party way back in 2002, when Joanna Carey and Emma Chichester-Clark were having supper with Quentin Blake and were bowled over by the amount of stuff he had kept from his extraordinary career, “letters, sketches, all the original artwork.” This led to discussions about a possible Quentin Blake museum, but the man himself became convinced the UK really needed a dedicated illustration gallery. And so over the next 12 years the House of Illustration evolved from table-talk through touring exhibitions and education programmes, finally opening its gallery space in London’s regenerated Kings Cross area last summer.
“With other disciplines you have a lot of other organisations and if one isn’t for you you can go to another one, whereas we’re pretty out there. But if some people are reacting against what we’re doing then that’s great because it sets up a dialogue.”Olivia Ahmad
12 months on, Olivia admits that her remit was pretty broad – “illustration in all its forms from all time periods, go!” In the last 12 months the space has hosted three major shows – naturally enough Quentin Blake, a comparative show of Paula Rego and Honore Daumier and Mad Men era image-maker Mac Conner, as well as a host of talks, workshops and smaller shows.
“We wanted to make a statement about illustration being in a gallery context and I think we’ve done that,” Olivia says. “The opening got a lot of press, a lot of people said this is great, why hasn’t this happened before?”
That high level of interest comes with certain pressures though. “There’s a huge weight of expectation on us, and I think people might be open to criticising us more because there’s not other stuff out there,” Olivia says.
“With other disciplines you have a lot of other organisations and if one isn’t for you you can go to another one, whereas we’re pretty out there. But if some people are reacting against what we’re doing then that’s great because it sets up a dialogue.”
She admits that a major challenge is to cater to both the UK’s illustration community and the general public – two groups who both want and expect different things from the space and the shows held there. Olivia thinks that being in Kings Cross rather than east London helps make the gallery more accessible; it is also convenient for the many European visitors who come to the exhibitions.
But it is also a curatorial balancing act, between crowd-pleasers like the hugely popular Quentin Blake show and more challenging cutting-edge work (explored for example in the HOI residency, where Rachel Lillie really pushed ideas of what illustration is by producing sculptures and poetry).
The reality though is that it’s possible to think about the shows in much more nuanced ways. “I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive; I think you can engage a broad public but have something there for people who really know what they’re looking at.
“With Quentin’s show we were surprising people by talking about the process. He was really up for that, to say that it’s not like a lightning bolt that hits you and you’re a conduit for a monolithic, magical idea. It’s a staged process with editors involved so how do you collaborate with someone when you’re a creative person?
“We also had his work for Voltaire’s Candide which is really saucy and so not for children, so it was quite revealing.”
"Setting contemporary work in the context of its precedents is important. How would you know if something was subverting conventions if you didn’t know what the conventions were?”Olivia Ahmad
Furthermore, alongside these big-name exhibitions that often deal with illustration’s past, the HOI’s South Gallery is given over to younger practitioners who represent the discipline’s present – “ a space for us to engage with things that are happening as they happen,” as Olivia puts it.
Recent shows have featured some specially-commissioned work from Hattie Stewart, and there was a crucial interplay between this show and the Mac Conner exhibition next door.
“I think setting contemporary work in the context of its precedents is important,”Olivia say. “How would you know if something was subverting conventions if you didn’t know what the conventions were?”
Hattie too is excited to have her work in the same gallery as Mac Conner, and likes the fact people who go to see one show may well wander into the other.
“We’re both kind of working in advertising but in totally different fields with totally different viewpoints and totally different styles,” she says. “But we’re both illustrators, and I think that combination is very exciting.”
For Hattie, the UK needed a dedicated illustration gallery, with the ambition to redefine how people see it as an art form. “It’s still not taken seriously as a creative area,” she admits. “People don’t really know how big and varied illustration goes.”
And she is full of praise for the way Olivia and her team have curated shows that can be bought into on several levels. “That’s one of the wonders of illustration – if you don’t really want to learn much you can look at pretty pictures but if you do want to learn you can look in between the lines. That’s what so exciting about the way they curate their exhibitions, that it’s so unpatronising.”
The illustrator, writer and lecturer Lawrence Zeegen – an often outspoken critic of the contemporary illustration scene – agrees the House of Illustration is an important addition to London’s cultural landscape.
“I would say it’s as important as having a museum that champions design,” he says. “The cultural value of illustration is slowly but increasingly being recognised and I think for designers, illustrators and artists, whether students or professionals, having a place where the best of illustration practice is shown is really important.
“I also think it’s really important that it’s available to the wider public which is what I think the HOI is doing well,” he continues. “I think it’s one part of a wider scheme to enhance illustration as we understand it – a gallery is critical as part of that bigger story.”
"Illustration needs to play catch up and look at the opportunities it has to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the values and issues and themes of the day.”Lawrence Zeegen
Lawrence understands there may be “frustration” from some sections of the illustration community who want the gallery to showcase more left field work and stretch the boundaries much further, but he thinks that can and will come over time.
“I think the HOI can be a hub for these debates and it may have to instigate some of these things and stir things up, be more critical perhaps and more challenging,” he says. “But it has to look for a wider public too – if it only relies on patronage from the illustration community it won’t survive very long.”
Lawrence’s show exploring the design language of the Ladybird children’s books is now open, and he has also joined the gallery’s exhibitions committee from which he hopes to help drive the HOI into new territory. For example he thinks the gallery could work more closely with the Association of Illustrators to raise the discipline’s profile, and he thinks that in time it can play a more academic role.
“I am very aware that research in illustration is quite new; if you look across to other disciplines like photography or architecture they are many decades ahead. Illustration needs to play catch up and look at the opportunities it has to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the values and issues and themes of the day.”
For its part the AOI says it’s “delighted” that London has a dedicated illustration space and is full of praise for its “eclectic approach, ensuring contemporary and vintage illustration are represented,” so future collaboration looks possible.
Olivia knows that many people are watching the gallery with high hopes for what it might do, but she is wary of the HOI getting too ahead of itself. “I see it as a really long-term project, looking five or ten years ahead and I think we’ll be delivering all those things in instalments.” There are already encouraging plans for closer collaboration with universities and the education programme is working with GCSE pupils to help excite enthusiasm for illustration in future generations.
Short-term though, the exhibition programme takes up much of her time. After Lawrence’s show there’ll be a showcase of E.H. Shepherd’s First World War drawings, a show of Soviet children’s literature, newly commissioned ceramics from Laura Carlin and an exhibition co-curated with Paul Gravett exploring women and comics. “It’ll be an academic show that’ll have a lot of freaky stuff,” Olivia explains; a nice reflection of the HOI’s mission for the next 12 months and beyond.
About the Author
Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.