Monday, 12:00pm
9 August 2021

A new space for illustration

A derelict waterworks site in London’s Clerkenwell will become the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, the world’s largest public arts space dedicated to ‘art with a job to do’. By Clare Walters

In two years’ time† London’s re-named House of Illustration (formerly based in Granary Square, King’s Cross) will be moving into the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration, writes Clare Walters.

Artistic director Olivia Ahmed kindly gave Eye a tour of its location in Clerkenwell and showed us the undeveloped historic site in all its derelict glory. There is something thrilling about seeing a new venue before building work has even begun. Amid crumbling brickwork and dusty walkways it can take only a speck of imagination to visualise a vibrant space of restored buildings, landscaped exteriors and interested visitors.

So it was with Eye’s visit. Housed in a large site at New River Head in London’s Clerkenwell, the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration (QBCI). will become an ambitious home for illustration in the UK.

Top. Engine House.
Right. Internal view of the North Stores at New River Head in Clerkenwell, London, destined to become a new gallery space. Photographs by Justin Piperger, 2021.

Right. Collage visualisation of the proposed gallery space. By Tim Ronalds Architects, 2021.

The listed site, acquired in 2019, is part of an industrial complex founded in 1609, when water was first channelled from Hertfordshire to supply London’s growing population. It still has connections to Thames Water, and as you walk around it you can hear water gurgling all around you.

Curved interior of the Engine House at New River Head in Clerkenwell, London. Photograph by Justin Piperger, 2021.

Collage visualisation of the Engine House gallery space at QBCI. By Tim Ronalds Architects, 2021.

Tucked away on Amwell Street, New River Head is a collection of buildings dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These will eventually be converted into galleries, an education centre, cafe, shop and outdoor area.

The scattered buildings are quirky and unusual, and include an old Round House that was the base of a windmill used to pump water; an impressively tall Engine House with curved walls and a large arched window; the North Stores; and a Boiler House and Coal Store. Exploring the history of these buildings will make any visit intriguing, even before you begin to look at the illustration artworks that will be on display in the galleries.

The aim is to do a ‘light touch’ refurbishment, where the bones of the building, once made secure and safe, will be glimpsed behind the displays. The architect undertaking the project – Tim Ronalds – is familiar with historic buildings. In 2006, he was involved in the conversion of an old Victorian power station into what is now known as the National Centre for Circus Arts; and in 2015 he completed work on the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall. If all goes smoothly, building work at New River Head will start in spring 2022.

Elaborate cast-iron staircase at the New River Head in Clerkenwell, London. Photograph by Justin Piperger, 2021.

The mission of HoI (soon to become QBCI) is to promote illustration in all its forms, whether that be a graphic novel or children’s picturebook, an advertisement, a piece of illustrative reportage, a poster or a newspaper cartoon. A glance at the HoI’s online exhibitions and workshops hints at the breadth of the field covered by the word ‘illustration’. The new Centre will also house an archive of more than 40,000 works by founder Quentin Blake.

One of Quentin Blake’s drawing for Beatrix Potter’s story The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots.

HoI’s new director is Lindsey Glen, formerly the Royal Opera House’s head of policy and strategy. She says: ‘We want to bring Sir Quentin’s unique sense of imagination and playfulness to New River Head, while encouraging people of all ages to visit and reimagine this important but forgotten place.’

When finished, the QBCI will become ‘the world’s largest public arts space dedicated to illustration’, and that will surely help to raise the profile of what the HoI defines as ‘art with a job to do’.

• In September 2021 there will be a limited number of walking tours of the site under the title ‘Fluid London’. Booking link here and below.

† Now planned to open in 2025 (as of 24 November 2023)!

Cover of Clown by Quentin Blake, 1995.

Clare Walters, author of children’s picturebooks and journalist, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.