After booking into Animal Magic, one of the many summer activities for kids hosted by the beautiful Hall Place & Gardens, I was extremely excited to see that in the gallery of the main house, they were exhibiting a very different collection of recent work by Quentin Blake. I found it very difficult to imagine my childhood without the instantly recognisable illustrations of Blake, bringing to life the mad-cap children stories of Roald Dahl. In fact, these days if it wasn’t for some of his designs being prevalent in various mass-market card shops, I could have been forgiven for assuming that he had hung up his apron and dried off his paint brushes!
After animal-petting and a picnic, I only had about an hour before my youngest would need a nap, and we had to be somewhere that afternoon, so I knew I was taking a risk trying to squeeze-in this sizeable exhibit with the kids. I was confident that they would love his colourful and comedic style, but I hadn’t counted on having to first bypass some extremely exciting (and unintentionally interactive) models of cats, and a hands-on Tudor room. ‘Just go with it’ I thought…and I’m glad I did.
How much fun was The Cat Circus? Beginning life as a book of pen and ink drawings by Jessica Jane Charleston, this illustrated story has been brought to life in the form of three incredible larger-than-life paper mâché cats, alongside a host of pen, ink and watercolour drawings from The Cat Circus books. The work tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped by cats and taken to their circus. The journey takes her across the sea and on the way she meets a host of other characters, reflected in the magical work that fills the gallery, making you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The story captured the imagination of my little moggy-lovers so much that in the time it took to capture this amazing work on camera, I had repeatedly uttered the words “Uh, no you can’t sit on them” and “That’s right, gentle patting please”. Definitely time to move on.
The Tudor Room is a must for families with children of all ages. Aside from its fascinating interior, it’s complete with draws to open, buttons to press, coins to rub and a dressing up box! And even though I was desperate to rush them on to the main event, I had to give the girls their dues. This place was well worth the £8 adult admission.
Finally, we climbed the stairs, and after a false-start in the form of a pre-schooler toilet call, we were surrounded by the magnificent As Large as Life, a collection of more recent work by Quentin Blake, this time serving a social purpose. All of the work in the exhibition had been commissioned by hospitals both in the UK and abroad, and were supported by The Nightingale Project, a project that champions the use of art and music to make healthcare sites more appealing for patients and visitors. Originally drawn in the artist’s studio, the various prints were then enlarged and reproduced as high-quality digital prints to be displayed on the walls as if drawn directly onto them, thus inspiring the title of the exhibition.
The first section of the exhibition, Planet Zog, captures Quentin Blake at his best. This work features a host of mischievous and eccentric characters, created with endless detail that really give the popular ‘eye-spy’ books a run for their money. The girls absolutely loved the funny looking aliens, and that in every part of the picture there was something new going on, and something else to spot.
My youngest was getting impatient by this time, but luckily the impressive hanging vinyls were big enough to catch our eye before moving on to some of the most touching work in the exhibition; Ordinary Life in Vincent Square. The Vincent Square Clinic in London is for people with eating disorders, and after meeting with patients, Blake decided that a celebration of normality and every day life would be the most appropriate theme. This work had such a calm, peaceful feel to it, a huge departure from the animated character scenes typical of Blake’s lively style. And of course they were popular with the girls. More cats, and dogs, all extending our pet-themed day!
This felt to me like a sensible time to leave. We’d had a very busy morning and were happy that we had managed to squeeze in something for everyone.
As Large as Life definitely lived up to my expectations, but with the fabulous unexpected The Cat Circus diversion, it was proof that even the biggest of headline acts, can occasionally be upstaged by the support.
As Large as Life by Quentin Blake, and The Cat Circus are both on display at Hall Place House & Gardens, Bexley Heritage Trust until 31st August 2014
Admission to Hall Place is £8 Adults, £6 for under 16s, under 5s free.
If you Gift Aid your ticket, it will be valid for unlimited repeat visits within a 12-month period.