Sir Peter Blake photographed by Chris Floyd
The great British pop artist is perched upon a milk-white sofa in his light and airy sitting room above Chiswick High Road in West London, a pool of sunshine lighting up his trademark goatee and red braces. He’s telling me about his three big current projects – one’s a painting of St Martin in St Paul’s Cathedral, the second some illustrations for a new edition of Under Milk Wood and… he can’t for the life of him remember what the third one is.
Peter Blake dissolves into the kind of self-amused, shrugging laughter that’s par for the course when you’re mere days from your 80th birthday. He blames a recent knee operation for being uppermost in his mind. ‘I was told I could have up to eight painkillers a day and I’m taking ten. So that’s not bad, is it?’
But his answer to the next question is so detailed and captivating that his wife Chrissy nearly drops the coffee tray when she bowls in 20 minutes later: ‘You’ll have to get a bend on. He’s only got an hour and a half and you’re still on World War Two!’
The question was prompted by his cufflinks, both tiny images of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Anyone familiar with Blake’s work will know it’s full of nostalgia for the paraphernalia of youth. He once produced a whole series of paintings based on Alice Through the Looking Glass and, in 1962, completed The Toy Shop, a magical, three-dimensional piece depicting a window crammed with little aeroplanes, tops, games, puppets, cars, tin trains and puzzles all from the Forties, although the shop’s green door remains firmly shut. Was this, I wondered, the result of being evacuated during the war?
‘Well, yes it was. It had a profound effect, even more so on my younger sister. We felt our childhood had been taken away from us.’
He recounts the events of September 3, 1939 as though they were yesterday, all seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old and full of good-humoured sighs and looks of disbelief, and yet barely a trace of bitterness.
‘There was the famous broadcast and we were told war had been declared. And there was a general kind of panic. One man in our street, in Marcus Road in Dartford, had built an Anderson shelter in his garden and we were all taken there as they assumed the German bombers would arrive on that Sunday morning. We sat in the shelter all afternoon looking up at the skies.’
His mother was nine months pregnant so he and his sister were immediately evacuated to a little village in Essex called Helions Bumpstead on a coach from Victoria in the pouring rain. The curious household awaiting him was ‘a Dickensian story of its own’. Its occupants included ‘Mrs Lofts who was in charge, a farm labourer who got up at five every morning and farted all the way down the steep wooden stairs from the loft, which we thought was quite funny, a man who’d lost a leg in the Boer War and Mrs Lofts’ 12-year-old daughter who had a withered arm, so that was quite scary.
‘No electricity, no gas, a water pump in the kitchen. The toilet was a wooden shack in the garden. Everything cooked on a single paraffin burner. Breakfast was a slice of fried bread – which I loved and would quite like these days actually,’ he adds, patting his stomach wistfully.
‘I was seven and Shirley was five. She arrived in pretty dresses and within a month was wearing black stockings and boots halfway up her thigh like a Victorian child. And there were no toys in that house at all,’ he says with great regret, though on a rare trip back to Dartford he remembers his father made him a little car with lead wheels from a tin, and that his greatest treasure was finding bits of crashed enemy aircraft, ‘one with a swastika on it’.
The war behind him, Blake went to technical school, heading for a career as an electrician, but he passed a drawing exam and was offered a place at the local art school.
‘I was 14, cycling down there in my grey flannel shorts. They had these Italian modelling families who’d arrive and pose for the life-drawing class dressed in Roman togas or gypsy costumes or whatever, but on my first day we got Quentin Crisp – dyed blue hair, blue fingernails, blue eye make-up, lipstick and big floppy hat. I’d never seen anything like him in my life.’
Three years in the junior art department taught him the kind of disciplines that most fine artists never experience – silver-smithing, anatomy, architecture, lettering, wood-carving and engraving. He became fascinated with techniques way beyond the ability purely to paint and draw, making artworks out of collage and using his expanding collection of objects and ephemera. His pictures had echoes of the past – Manet and the Pre-Raphaelites – but they also celebrated a brave new present full of movies, magazines, rock’n’roll and advertising, a key hallmark of the Sixties Pop Art movement he helped to pioneer.
‘I was working class,’ Blake points out, ‘and brought a different culture into fine art. I was living with my mum in Gravesend and we’d be going to the wrestling once a week and seeing the West Ham speedway team, so I brought sport and fairgrounds and music hall and jazz with me. That’s where my Pop Art came from – autobiographical popular culture.’
His award-winning 1961 painting Self-Portrait with Badges featured the 29-year-old Blake in a denim jacket announcing his character both through the music and the celebrities he liked, a bold and original statement in the days before the nation fell in love with The Beatles and people started using pop culture as a shorthand for their own personalities. He’s even holding an Elvis Presley fan magazine. ‘I was trying to make an equivalent of pop music,’ he says. ‘If I painted a portrait of Elvis, I wanted the kind of girl who danced to his music to like the picture too.’
Blake’s career was in overdrive. He appeared in the first edition of The Sunday Times Magazine, then shot to fame in the TV documentary Pop Goes The Easel by the young Ken Russell. He was making headlines in Britain, along with others such as Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamilton, while Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg were pushing Pop Art boundaries in America. Through the wildly camp art impresario Richard Fraser, he met the colourful assortment of slumming aristocrats, society It girls, painters, models, snappers, fashion designers and fast-rising rock stars that constituted Swinging London.
‘Tony Curtis became a good friend. Marlon Brando came to my private view. I had lunch with him once – very sulky. You’d get a couple of Rolling Stones at those shows. Paul [McCartney] almost always came, and John Lennon usually, too. There was a great mixture of classes – in photography you’d have Patrick Lichfield and Snowdon and, on the other hand, Bailey, Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy and the cockney boys. You had the posh actors and then people like Terence Stamp. And the society models and girls like Twiggy who were working class. It was an amazing time – though I didn’t take any drugs. I remember Robert Fraser bringing Paul McCartney to my studio once and the two of them seeing wonderful reds and greens that I didn’t realise were there!’
In one of those classic ironies, the work that sealed his reputation was the one that earned him the least money. The Beatles had invented four psychedelic fantasy characters in which to record their new music and wanted an equally rule-breaking record sleeve, one that reached beyond the confines of just photography or illustration. For the princely sum of £200 – it still rankles – Blake developed McCartney’s rough sketch of a bandstand into a three-dimensional set in his studio including park-styled flowerbeds and statues and ‘an audience that could include anyone they wanted’. He made lifesize figures of their heroes – a motley collection of artists, actors, painters, singers, writers, comedians and religious gurus – and stood them in the background behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
‘Could be done in ten minutes on a computer these days,’ he sighs softly. ‘I’ve still got some of the cut-outs in my studio, and the waxwork figure of Sonny Liston and the little Snow White figure in the flowers. I think I’ve still got the Indonesian goddess with the six arms in the loft, probably a little moth-eaten now.’
By 1969, he says, there was ‘a general feeling that it was time to change’ and Blake and six others, including his first wife Jann Haworth, moved to the West Country to set up an art commune and, in 1975, co-found The Brotherhood of Ruralists, buying a disused railway station, painting, sketching and living off the land – ‘berries, vegetables and the odd rabbit’ – a charming, self-sufficient idyll that ended suddenly when Haworth left him for another man. Blake then returned to London and ‘had a bit of a breakdown’.
But the second phase of his career then began in earnest. He spent a while on the American West Coast, again hurling together ancient and modern themes in paintings of rollerskaters on Venice Beach that had echoes of 16th-century Italy, and famously capturing an encounter with his old friend David Hockney in his sun-baked masterpiece The Meeting (Hockney’s recent Royal Academy show he calls ‘an incredible, amazing and fantastic late-period body of work’).
A whole new generation of rock musicians who’d grown up with The Beatles were now beating a path to his door. Bob Geldof asked Blake to design the cover for what would be the bestselling British single of all time, Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Band Aid’s charity record for Ethiopian famine relief, and he’s since done further covers for Paul Weller, Oasis and many others.
He’s firmly backed fashion: had you attended Kate Moss’s wedding, you’d have found him forking down the smoked salmon alongside Bryan Ferry and Paul McCartney.
Apart from the Queen, whom Blake admires enormously – ‘for her sheer presence when you meet her and, with my bad knees, I admire her just for walking!’ – the most impressive person he’s ever met is the late Lucien Freud. He’d given Freud a drawing on his 88th birthday and was settling into a table in Piccadilly’s famous Wolseley dining establishment soon after when a waiter with a silver tray tapped him on the shoulder and delivered a handwritten note ‘on the restaurant’s headed paper’. It was a thank-you from Lucien, dining nearby, an artefact that would now pay for several Wolseley dinners, and probably something nice from the wine cellar thrown in, too.
What wisdom can Sir Peter Blake pass on at this impressive age?
‘Wisdom is just accumulated knowledge really. You just know a lot of stuff. Only this morning Chrissy asked me how to spell “suffice” and I know how to spell “suffice”. My personal motto is “Stay ahead of the avant garde”. But I’ve got another that works for anyone: “Living well is the best revenge”.’
An exhibition to mark Peter Blake’s birthday starts June 23 at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, W Sussex. Visit www.pallant.org.uk, 01243 774557.
Mark Ellen is editor of The Word magazine. This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Saga Magazine, to read more fascinating interviews like this, subscribe today.