In an exclusive interview, we talk to famed British Pop Art pioneer Sir Peter Blake about his wartime childhood, celebrity and storytelling in art, and how a lifetime of collecting never really stops.
“That’s when Marcel Duchamp met the Spice Girls, at the same time as meeting Elvis, sitting on his travelling bus,” says artist Sir Peter Blake of his Mystery Tour £2. 10s. 0d. (2005), made from collaging together icons in art and pop culture across eras. Creating other-worldly scenes is “what the surrealists were doing, a lot” and that play on celebrity myth and fantasy “just becomes part of the storytelling … Once you realise you can do it, there’s no reason not to.”
In a career spanning seven decades, with retrospectives at Tate Britain (1983) and Tate Liverpool (2008), 88-year-old Blake holds towering status in the art world. Considered one of Britain’s living greats and knighted by Prince Charles in 2002, he’s dubbed the Godfather of British Pop Art. The music-lover is also famous for creating album art for the likes of The Who, Eric Clapton and Oasis, but it’s The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover that remains his most recognisable work – a near-legendary, tongue-in-cheek, star-studded collage. Blake tells us from his home in Chiswick, West London, that he’s has been busy with a new exhibition, Peter Blake: Time Traveller, at London’s Waddington Custot Gallery (from June 18 to mid-August). An exploration of his use of collage over a seven-decade period, it includes works from his famous Alphabet and Museum of Black and White series, his earliest collages from the ’50s and ’60s, as well as new, unseen pieces.
“I decided a couple of years ago to have private gallery shows and show everything while I could, rather than wait for municipal shows at the Tate or whatever. I had a show called Portraits and People, and one on just drawings, and this is the collage element of that adventure.” Blake says that when he stepped down as the British National Gallery’s artist-in-residence at the age of 65, “I declared that I was retiring from the art world, but that didn’t mean that I’d stop working. It just meant that I was retiring from greed and ambition and avarice – all the nasty things; but I’d still keep on working.”
Beyond technicalities, this meant a detachment from the institutions (after so many decades “there’s nothing left to compete for, in a way”, he says) but clearly his appetite for making art hasn’t waned. “The format of this show has three elements,” Blake explains. “It goes back to those first collages, then a big piece called The Battle. Then the Joseph Cornell’s Holiday series” – almost 100 original pieces, sparked after seeing the American Surrealist artist Cornell’s 2015 Wanderlust exhibtion at the Royal Academy.
“It was about the fact that Cornell loved Europe and all things European, but never, ever travelled there. He knew where everything was in Paris, the architecture, the dancers etcetera, but never went. I thought, ‘I’ll make a series of collages and take him on the journey he never went on, his dream journey!’”
The play on the public personas of artists, icons and celebrities throughout the ages forms his ultimate act of visual storytelling. There’s genuine reverence for the stars, as Blake skilfully toys with the power and myth of celebrity when creating these fantastical encounters. “Elvis is the rock ’n’ roll icon – it’s got to be him, even though my personal hero is [the Beach Boys’] Brian Wilson. And in The Acropolis I feature a group of famous blondes: Marilyn, Lady Gaga, Blondie, etcetera, but Marilyn always emerges as top girl.”
This enduring fascination with the silver screen, celebrity and pop culture comes hand in hand with a collector’s mentality. Blake says that his famous Hammersmith studio is now “more like a museum”, hosting his incredibly eclectic collection of curios amassed over a period of seven decades. That impulse to collect stemmed very much from the sparsity of his childhood in post-war England.
“Pretty much I was a child of the Second World War. I went to art school at the age of 13, so having been evacuated for much of the war and not being with my parents, suddenly I was a young adult going to school with not many possessions or anything,” Blake explains. “I went to a junk shop near the school and bought a papier-mâché Victorian tray, a set of leather-bound Shakespeare and a painting of the Queen Mary. That started the collection.”
Today, he still has the tray and the Queen Mary in the huge assemblage of artefacts, bought over many years at auctions or in junk shops. Vintage mantlepiece decorations might come alongside tin toy trains, eerie dolls’ heads or wonderfully eclectic objets d’art. Those layers of collective history, the patient accumulation of stories amassed over a lifetime, seems to offer a window into Blake’s colourful mind.
“It’s an integral part of it, the collecting,” the artist admits. “I’ve kind of given up now. Well, I thought I had until last week when I bought a few more at the Chiswick Auction of Curiosities – there’s a taxidermy piece of two fighting hares, which was beautiful.” His experience of the ’50s and the Swinging Sixies in London, when popular culture provided powerful subversion, has a pointed mark on this work. Alongside this was an admiration for a new generation of creative working-class heroes that fuelled his own ambitions.
“I’m sure it comes out of the fact that I’m working class,” Blake says. “When I went to Gravesend School of Art, I lived at home and my background was very working class – we’d be doing things like going to the wrestling or the football … it was fairgrounds, circuses and cinemas in my childhood. I imagine if I’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge or been very rich, I wouldn’t have chosen the things that I chose.”
When he was a child, Blake’s mother took him to the cinema and eventually those movie stars became his heroes; later on the likes of Elvis and comedian Lou Costello would all appear in his work. Late Period: Battle, his biggest canvas work to date (begun in 1964, abandoned and then completed in 2018), depicts a fantastical battle scene between “vaguely good and evil: the good are film stars and the bad are wrestlers.”
All this came with the emergence of Pop Art, which he helped pioneer in the UK. In the US, there were the likes of neo-Dadaists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who pre-empted Pop Art in the early ’50s. The British scene was a different genus: there was “an independent group led by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Smithsons, Nigel Henderson – they were all very intellectual, would gather at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and discuss pop culture, and their Pop Art sort of came out of that,” Blake recalls.
“At the same time, you’ve got me at the Royal College [of Art] from about 1954. As soon as I was free to paint as I wanted, the work became very autobiographical.” Blake was forging his own way, on a path paved by the likes of Ruskin Spear – “Working-class artists interested in people around them: that was my branch of Pop Art.” He soon discovered the medium of collage while sharing a flat in the mid-’50s with painter Richard Smith; Smith’s girlfriend’s family were friends of German artist Kurt Schwitters and “they explained to me what a collage was and all about his work.
“We used to go to the Royal College, make paintings there in the daytime and in the evening we’d make collages.” He cites getting into the RCA as a pivotal point, as well as winning the Junior Prize in the John Moores Award in 1961 – “Competing against heavy hitters like Lucien Freud, it was very exciting to win that.” Roll the clocks forward 60-plus years and Blake regales me with stories plucked out from this decade or that. The artist’s gentle voice often breaks into a chuckle at the surreal scenarios he’s found himself in, such as a joint exhibition with the famed chimpanzee film star Cheetah (of Tarzan film fame), who’d apparently “retired” to paint.
He remembers visiting Hong Kong decades ago, when the the city’s skyline comprised only a handful of skyscrapers. There’s talk about the Night Market, seeing Cantonese opera singers and visiting “a four-storey restaurant where the higher up you got the more authentic it got. On the top floor they bought dishes out on trays and you spat the bones out on the floor. I love Chinese food, so I had a great time there.” In the city, he bought a foot-long ceramic peanut on one of the outlying islands. “Yeah, it’s still in the collection!”
Today, there’s obviously not much travel for Blake. He might get out to a few key exhibitions in London, and still follows a few artists (though many he admired “are, of course, dead”). He still flips through his art books (Lucien Freud’s earlier work is still a favourite) and while working likes to listen to JazzFM.
“As a young man, I went to a lot of jazz concerts,” Blake says, citing Chet Baker as his favourite. There’s also a love of Dionne Warrick and his enduring admiration for his musical hero Brian Wilson (Blake did the album cover for That Lucky Old Sun). These provide the playlist as Blake heads towards his ninth decade.
When faced with such milestones, there’s always the subject of legacy. At 75, the artist announced his own “Late Period” (something usually left to others). “I’d already started this kind of game, at the moment I’ve this curious feeling that if my career were circular, I’ve completed the circle,” says Blake. “In a way I’ve sealed it off. I’m separate from the art world now, both beyond and behind it, but still working.”
As for a legacy, it seems that this Godfather of Pop Art has somehow managed to write much of his own. When his contemporary, artist Richard Smith, was alive, “I used to joke that he could use that title whenever he wanted … Or he could be the Grandfather and I could be the Godfather, which is nice. I like that. It’s not quite true, but I like it.”
(Hero Image: Sir Peter Blake at work in his studio)