Vision for Blake centre is quite the draw

New River Head site to become new House of Illustration

Friday, 25th February — By Charlotte Chambers

Blake centre Artist impression

An artist’s impression of the proposed development

AFTER 25 years of controversial schemes that failed to materialise – and seven decades of standing empty – the future for a centuries-old building has finally been secured: it will become a centre for illustration.

The planned transformation of the New River Head site in Amwell Street, Clerkenwell, will be the first public arts space of its kind in the UK and headed up by Sir Quentin Blake, whose works have brought to life some of the most famous children’s books.

His team are hoping to have it open by the end of next year.

At a marathon Town Hall meeting on Tuesday that finished after midnight, owners of the half-acre site, House of Illustration, described creating a destination where families and students alike could visit and take in the surroundings.

The site as it currently stands

As part of this “extraordinary heritage” £12million project, the plan is to landscape the grounds to create a pond and garden. They will also build a café with an outside terrace, as well as creating two floors of gallery space – one to house a permanent exhibition for Sir Quentin, and the other to host touring exhibitions dedicated to illustration. There will also be an education building onsite.

Speaking on Tuesday, House of Illustration director Lindsey Glen said the new plot far outclassed their old one in Granary Square, King’s Cross, which it left in 2020.

“This is far more of a destination,” she said of the land, which they acquired in 2019 from Thames Water for £1million. The site was once the only pump house in London, providing water for the City and the West End.

Ms Glen added: “You can come here for free, you can walk through the site and enjoy the gardens and experience some art while you’re there. You can use the café or you might come for one of these exhibitions so in terms of the charity, it’s a considerable expansion on what we were able to do at Granary Square.”

Quentin Blake

Sir Quentin, who turns 90 this year, is the founder of House of Illustration. He has drawn pictures for more than 500 books in his 60-year career, including many of Roald Dahl’s best-loved characters, such as the BFG, Willy Wonka and The Witches. Some of his 40,000-strong archive will go on display when building work is completed.

House of Illustration communications manager Rachel Stoplar said of Sir Quentin: “He just won’t stop drawing”.

The subject of a Christmas Day BBC documentary last year, the large mural he drew of his life was done on the Amwell Road site. He was named the first ever Children’s Laureate in 1999 and was knighted in 2013.

Ms Stoplar said: “He’s involved [in the project] in a very hands-off way. He’s very supportive, this is the culmination of his dream and what he wanted for the discipline of illustration. He wanted a place that had illustration on the front of the door – you know, a sign over the door – and he wanted to bang the drum for illustration.

“Generally, he wanted to have a place where this art form is really important – and really, it’s everywhere, once you start noticing it. But it’s not really recognised very much by the fine art establishment, or in galleries or museums. So this is the culmination of that vision. This is going to have his name, which is fitting, given the support he’s given to it.”

Rachel Stoplar

The New River channel was cut from a spring in Hertfordshire and completed in 1613. Designed to meet the growing needs of Londoners, who until that time were served by water carriers, the pump house was originally run on wind power from a wind­mill. In 1720, horses took over the hard graft before the water was eventually pumped by coal power by 1768.

The location is – and will remain –a hugely significant player in London’s underground water pipes, and Thames Water still retain use of some of the land, as well as an adjacent site.

The engine house will house the Centre’s main temporary exhibition space, where ticketed events will be held featuring “flagship exhibitions about historical and contemporary illustration”. A terraced café will also be there.

The Learning Studio will be based in the area known as the North Stores which, as unlisted buildings, will be knocked down and rebuilt as two storeys.

“It’s called the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration rather than the Quentin Blake museum or gallery because we want it to be equal parts education and exhibition,” Ms Stoplar added.

The House of Illustration already have a strong history of working with different local community groups, and just completed a project with the Peel Institute, a Clerkenwell-based charity, working with older people who illustrated their memories of the area for a visual map.

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