An interview with Sir Peter Blake
PUBLISHED: 08:31 26 September 2013 | UPDATED: 08:31 26 September 2013
Tonbridge artist Guy Portelli talks to the Godfather of Pop Art
Sir Peter Blake, KBE, RDI, RA, sits opposite me as I admire his Chiswick studio. The room is cluttered with old toys, pieces of signs and pages torn from magazines.
A small area of table has been cleared so that he can paint and the whole effect is that of creative process at work. I can’t help thinking, will this room one day be installed into a museum as an artwork? I hope so.
Peter, 82, attained success most notably as a pop artist during the late 1950s. The medium was relatively new and different, which appealed to the changing times of that generation.
Pop art presented a challenge to the traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news and comic books. Peter himself cites wrestling, fairgrounds and cinema as major influences on his work.
One of his early works, Self-Portrait with Badges, shows him standing before a fence with an assortment of football badges stapled to his jacket. It won him the 1961 John Moores junior award.
Guy Portelli: You where born in Dartford in 1932 so you would have been seven when the Second World War began. What are your memories of that time?
Sir Peter Blake: The beginning of the war was an amazing change of childhood. One’s life kind of stopped. War was announced on a Sunday and we all rushed to the shelter, expecting waves of planes to come over.
The next day we got evacuated to Essex. Someone in our street knew someone from Essex and we all went there, my mother was expecting a baby, so it was me and my sister.
In order to get our one penny for sweet money, we had to collect the molehill soil, apparently it’s good for the garden. One day, I thought I can’t go on with this and I tried to strangle myself but that, of course, is very difficult.
GP: What about your education?
PB: I didn’t get into the very good local grammar school in Dartford, like my brother and sister. I tried for the technical school in Gravesend – my dad was an electrician, so I was thinking about the building trade – and the art school was part of it. Quite by chance I’d decided I wanted to be a painter, so they sent me round the corner to do a drawing.
I was recommended that I wouldn’t make a living as a painter and should go into the graphic design school to do commercial art. So I did a year of that course with the national diploma in graphic design, cycling from home in Dartford to Gravesend. Sometimes I caught the bus.
GP: How did you get back into fine art?
PB: I tried for the Royal College as a graphic designer a year into a two-year course, and got in as a painter.
GP: When was your big break?
PB: Three things happened close together. I won the Junior John Moores prize and also the Leverhulme Scholarship, and that allowed me to travel around Europe for a year.
GP: Did you meet many artists?
PB: I went to the restaurant that Picasso ate at, but he didn’t come that day, then I was visiting a studio next to Brancusi but > didn’t knock on his door, I would have liked to meet him. But I have met and know many of the American artists, mainly the West Coast ones like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.
GP: You came to wider public attention when you featured in Pop Goes the Easel, Ken Russell’s first full-length documentary for the BBC’s arts series Monitor. What was that like?
PB: I came up with that title! It was broadcast on BBC television in 1962. And then I was featured in the first-ever Sunday Times colour supplement.
GP: Like most art forms, pop art must have gone out of fashion. Normally artists make their progression up and then go into limbo when their style of work is not the current trend. Did that happen to you?
PB: I guess that has been what’s happened, but I’ve been unaware of it because I’ve always just carried on with what I do, right through. I’ve never hit the kind of pinnacle of fame that David Hockney or Damien Hirst have now. But I’ve never gone totally out of fashion either. There are people who have been incredibly successful, both financially and in terms of fame, and they’ve disappeared. That’s never happened to me. For years pop art was big and then it completely disappeared. No one was interested in it for some time and then Marco Livingston curated a show at the Royal Academy in 2002 and it came back and there was enormous interest again.
GP: Do you still have any ties with Kent?
PB: My mother moved from Dartford to Bexley and my brother lives there too so we go down there to visit him. About two years ago I wanted to check out that area of Kent again. We hired a mini-cab driver for the day and drove down through Greenwich and instead of going down the A2 to Bexley, we went straight over and down Shooter’s Hill and I sort of retraced my childhood and followed the bus route I used to take. We drove down into Dartford, then went on to the Medway towns and Thanet. We got to as far as Margate. It was really beautiful to see it all again.
GP: Have you been invited to exhibit at the Turner Contemporary in Margate?
PB: I had a couple of early paintings on show, they are ones that fetch the money, but of course I don’t have any of them myself any more. But not a retrospective as such.
GP: Your most notable work is the
design for the sleeve of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tell us about your work with musicians
PB: I worked with Eric Clapton, which nearly didn’t happen when I said I don’t like long guitar solos. I thought I’d blown it. Working with him was a dream. I have worked with Oasis and Paul Weller. And I worked on two of the Harry Potter films as well. In the first one I was a wizard in a painting that talked.
GP: Tell us about being knighted in 2002
PB: You get asked ‘if you were offered a knighthood, would you accept it, yes or no?’ I ticked ‘yes’ in the box and then nothing happened for two years, you’re not allowed to tell anyone. My mum, at the age of 90, came to the palace and that was probably her proudest moment. She didn’t really understand any of my paintings though.
GP: What are you working on now?
PB: At my age you start looking backwards because there is more behind you then in front of you, so I am finishing things off, rather then starting new ones. It has taken 28 years, for example, to complete the illustrations for Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. This year it’s about 60 years since the first reading and his death and next year it’ll be 100 years since his birth and there will be a special exhibition in Cardiff in November. I would like to do Alice in Wonderland next.
GP: Has your creative process changed over the years?
PB: Not really. I used to stand to paint, but now I sit mostly.
GP: I am curating a show in October, the STRARTA Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery and we will be showing some of your paintings. Will you come?
PB: OK. I went to a fashion show there last year.
GP: I have loved the experience of sitting with an iconic artist of our time, to me this will always be a very special 10 minutes.
PB: Forty five. Chrissy (his second wife) will be along to pick me up for my dinner. I will see you out. n