Sir Peter Blake was a pioneer of British Pop Art in the 1960s and is now one of Britain’s most eminent and best loved artists. Throughout his long and distinguished career he has made little or no distinction between ‘art’ and ‘design’ and has ploughed his own course with integrity and stamped his vision and personality on the past 5 decades.
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PETER BLAKE – THE EARLY YEARS
Peter Blake was born into a working-class family in Dartford, Kent on 25 June 1932. Growing up around the corner from the future rock star Mick Jagger, Blake has vivid memories of his early childhood years and his evacuation during the war time years, first aged 7 to a strict family in Essex and later to his eccentric godmother in Worcester. These early memories and experiences may somewhat account for the deep sense of childhood nostalgia in his mature artworks.
Peter Blake attended the Gravesend School of Art from 1949-1951 and was accepted into the Royal College of Art in 1953 where he graduated with a First Class Diploma in 1956. In the same year he was awarded the Leverhulme Research Award to study popular art in locations of his choosing around Europe. With £500 in his pocket he embarked on a year-long voyage of self-education through Italy, Spain, Belgium and Holland. Although his mission was to study popular art he visited many museums and the journey provided him with a real education in painting and the history of art which was to nourish him as a figurative painter in the years to come.
Peter Blake’s academic training in life drawing and lettering at the Gravesend School of Art and his early taste for popular entertainments such as cinema, circus, wrestling and popular music provide a touchstone for an understanding of his later development as an artist. By his early twenties, Peter Blake was creating his first Pop Art works at the Royal College of Art from 1953-1956. These were a direct, unpretentious and sincere response to his love of popular culture.
Peter Blake bravely declared himself as an artist of the people rather than one who wished only to address a cultural elite. Presenting his art in the guise of entertainment was considered a radical affront to the earnest seriousness and high moral tone of formal academic traditions. Peter Blake’s early works established him firmly as one of the forerunners of what was later to become the Pop Art movement, alongside older artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers.
THE CIRCUS, FUNFAIR AND POPULAR ENTERTAINMENTS
Immediately after he left art school, Peter Blake began a series of highly original portraits of side-show performers and circus ladies, painted on fragments of wood to resemble found fragments of fairground art. Having been a wrestling fan since the age of 15, Peter Blake went on to create similar portraits of wrestlers, tattooed ladies and other unusual looking people or ‘freaks’ who at the time were popular objects of repugnant curiosity. Peter Blake’s empathetic portrayal of people who were less than physically perfect may stem from his own self-consciousness about his appearance following an earlier bike accident. These themes of performers, wrestlers and circus acts were to become a recurrent theme in his later work.
POP ART, MUSICIANS AND FILM STARS
Rock’n’roll and teenage-orientated pop music were central to Peter Blake’s work as a Pop artist. His intention was to match the intensity, freshness and spirited vitality of the new music and create vibrant art works that captured the optimistic atmosphere of the early 60s. Elvis, the Beatles, Cliff Richard, La Vern Baker, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the Beach Boys were all subjects of Peter Blake’s paintings in those early years.
It was not just Pop musicians who attracted his attention at that time. Peter Blake also paid tribute to the stars of the Hollywood film industry, entertainers and the great European film stars of the period including Sammy Davis Junior, Kim Novak, Marylin Monroe and Jean Harlow.
Popular culture and music have continued to be a lasting source of inspiration for Peter Blake. Having studied both commercial and fine art Peter Blake was able to move seamlessly between both disciplines, distinguishing himself among Pop artists with his ability to produce collages and commercial illustrations in response to commissions. This led him to design numerous record sleeves for popular musicians at the time, his most celebrated being the cover for the Beatles Sgt Pepper‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band which he designed with his then wife, Jann Howarth. Peter Blake produced record sleeves for many more musicians over the years including Brian Wilson, Paul Weller, Ian Drury and the Who.
PETER BLAKE – THE RURALIST
In 1969, Peter Blake left London with his then wife Jann Howarth and infant daughter Liberty to settle in a former railway station in the village of Wellow, near Bath. This escape from London and retreat to the countryside was paralleled by several of his artist friends including Howard Hodgkin, Richard Smith and Joe Tilson. The ‘mass exodus’ was triggered by a general exhaustion with London and the tedious demands of galleries and dealers. Peter Blake was looking for peace and quiet and a chance for his to rediscover himself as a painter. They felt close to the land and lived a self-sufficient existence, keeping chickens and growing their own fruit and vegetables.
During this time Peter and Jann formed close associations with a number of other artists including Graham and Ann Arnold, David Inshaw and Annie Ovenden and together, they formed the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a name consciously evoking their Victorian predecessors, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Peter Blake’s earlier more urban Pop work gave way to an altogether more imaginative and figurative style of painting. Peter Blake’s time as a Ruralist brought him closer to nature and more in contact with literature. His watercolour illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ are some of best known works from that period but he also produced many dreamlike and often sentimental paintings of fairies and mythological, magical subjects.
Peter Blake’s life as a Ruralist came to an abrupt end in 1979 with the end of his marriage to Jann Howarth. His rural idyll fell apart and he returned to London alone to rebuild his life. Soon after he met the younger painter Chrissy Wilson with whom he quickly formed a strong and lasting bond. They were married seven years later and Chrissy gave birth to their daughter Rose. After settling back in London Peter Blake gradually turned once again to a more urban style of painting.
PETER BLAKE – THE COLLECTOR AND COLLAGIST
Peter Blake has always been an avid collector, not just of art but of all kinds of artefacts. Blake’s voracious accumulations, from ephemera through to valuable works of art, seems to stem from a desire to preserve, classify and document. His father was a collector but not on the same scale. Parts of Peter Blake’s house and studio resemble cabinets of curiosities and he uses items in his collection on a regular basis to embellish and feed his sculptural collage works. Since the 1950s, collage has been a consistent theme in Peter Blake’s work and he brings together printed images, cheaply produced toys, and other found trinkets to create his own, playful and distinctive visual language.
In some of his more recent screenprints, Peter Blake uses collections of printed figures and butterflies to populate his works. These he carefully cuts out of magazines and cards with nail scissors, often while watching television in the evenings. An assembled collage can take him many days to complete and the meticulous nature of his work and his attention to detail reflects his love of order, systems and tidiness.
THE LATER YEARS
Blake felt the need to define his own late period, which for him marked the era from the late 1990s up to the present day. He coined this, ‘a time when an artist can do almost anything they want. It doesn’t have to relate to the earlier work if you don’t want it to and it is a wonderful feeling of freedom. Usually other people decide when your Late Period is or was, but rather than wait for anyone else, I’ve decided very consciously to have mine now.’
Now in his late eighties, Peter Blake is still as active as ever and continues to work tirelessly from his studio in Hammersmith. Often described as the Godfather of Pop Art, his paintings and prints hang in museums and art galleries throughout the world but in the true spirit of Pop Art, can also be found in the humblest of homes. His iconic images and the record sleeve for Sgt Pepper remain among the most potent icons of the swinging sixties.
Peter Blake was knighted in 2002 for his services to art, an honour of which he is very proud.