Interview with a Curator – Olivia Ahmad

by Beth Wiffen


Olivia is a curator at the House of Illustration in London.  One of her most recent exhibitions was ‘The BFG in Pictures’ which she co-curated with Quentin Blake.  


What do you think illustrations add to a reader’s perception of the novel?

A good book illustration will enhance or extend the meaning of a text, rather than just directly translate what’s a text says. Text and images should be complimentary and not competing with each other – the illustrator John Vernon Lord describes this relationship as being ‘like food and drink’, which I think is a good way to understand the way that text and images should do different jobs but create one ‘whole’.


Roald Dahl seemed to have a lot of say in how the illustrations ‘look’.  Can you tell us more about the relationship between the author and illustrator?

Roald Dahl trusted Quentin to interpret and illustrate his books, it was rare that they talked about the illustrations in detail.  The BFG is an exception to that – Quentin was originally commissioned by Dahl’s publisher to do a small number of illustrations for the BFG.  Quentin did as he was asked, but when the book was at the printers, Dahl said that he wanted the book to be more lavishly illustrated – this led to him talking directly to Quentin about revised illustrations, and they discussed many elements, most notably the BFG’s clothing.  In the original illustrations, the BFG wore a long leather apron, but as Quentin and Dahl discussed the character, the apron was removed – they thought that a long apron would get tangled in his legs as he strode across Giant Country!  The BFG’s shoes were an ongoing discussion – he originally had long boots, but Quentin changed his footwear to sandals after Dahl sent one of his own sandals to Quentin in the post.


Do you think adding colour and displaying the illustrations in an exhibition change their meaning, audience or our way of seeing them?

Adding colour can certainly add a different feel to images or can suggest more information – it can make scenes seem more naturalistic or fantastical, change the time of day or make an atmosphere menacing or peaceful.  Colour is a very important narrative device.

When you put illustrations from a book into an exhibition, you take them out of their intended context, so you have to be very clear about what they are in your labels and exhibition texts – illustrators make images for books to be seen reproduced in print as part of a series, so they are not like paintings or sculptures that are often intended to standalone on public display. When we frame Quentin’s illustrations, we float mount them so that you can see notes for the printer like the page number the image is intended for, crop marks, notes on reproduction size, corrections and other annotations, rather than window mounting the image so that it looks like a ‘final piece’.


What is the difference between displaying pieces of art and illustrations?

The distinction between ‘art’ and ‘illustration’ is not always clear-cut – practitioners we may think of as ‘artists’ sometimes undertake publishing projects, and illustrators create installations, public art and so on. However, whenever we show illustrations that were made for reproduction (in books, as advertising and so on), we ensure that we explain what the works were made for, and we also try to show illustrations in their intended context (in this case by having printed copies of the book).


How did you handle the task of displaying unseen illustrations?  Was it different to handling ones that are more familiar?

They are pretty much treated in the same way – they come first in the exhibition because Quentin produced them first, and there is an accompanying text from him that explains how they came into existence, and that they were not published.  The first illustrations are very different to the ones that were eventually published, but we were some instances of similar scenes – such as the BFG eating a snozzcumber – that we could include from the first and second book so that people can compare them.


Why did you choose to display illustrations from the BFG?

Quentin Blake is the founder of House of Illustration, and his collection is pledged to us – we have a permanent space dedicated to his archive at our gallery in London.  We have a changing programme of temporary exhibitions that look back at moments in his 60-year career, as well as his current work. We decided to do an exhibition about the BFG because it is such a well-known and well-loved book, but the story of how the illustrations came to be hadn’t been told yet – it is always interesting to see the development of characters that are so familiar that they seem inevitable – as the original illustrations show, the BFG could have looked very different.


Do you think there is a difference between a curator picking art for an exhibition and an author picking illustrations for a novel?

It depends on the exhibition and the novel. Curating an exhibition is a storytelling process, you select works and add interpretive texts and film etc to convey particular ideas, but it is different to commissioning illustrations for a book, I think.


You can read more about the exhibition here and listen to another interview about the exhibition with York Art Gallery curator, Fiona Green.

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