Peter Blake b.Dartford, Kent 1932-
Thanks to his iconic sleeve for the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967, Peter Blake is now recognized far beyond the world of fine art. In conjunction with his then wife Jann Haworth he created this spectacular tableau of sixty or so life-sized colourful cardboard cut-out figures that include musicians, movie stars, philosophers, writers and historical figures, along with a selection of waxworks from Madame Tussaud’s, all heroes of the Beatles; grouped around the fab four dressed in their day-glo Ruritanian Sergeant Pepper uniforms.
Peter Blake had entered the junior department of Gravesend School of Art at the age of fourteen to learn commercial art, moving to the senior school in 1949. During the following year he was accepted for the Royal College of Art painting school but was unable to take up his studies until 1953 because of National Service in the RAF.
He graduated from the RCA in 1956 not only with a First Class Diploma but also the much-coveted Leverhulme Research Award, which he used to study popular culture travelling extensively in mainland Europe. For his Diploma Composition he had painted On the Balcony. In it he shows many variations of this theme, all seemingly collaged but in fact rendered as trompe-l’œil. It is a complex early work, which shows the artist’s interest in combining images from pop culture with fine art. It shows, among other things, a boy holding Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, the royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as if culled a newspaper, as well as other contemporary images such as a Life magazine cover. It is also about growing up. Although the children are obviously of school age, they are beginning express themselves as individuals by their choice of badges identifying their own personal interests.
By the late 50s, Peter Blake had become one of the best-known British pop artists. His paintings include the subject matter he loves most, imagery from the circus, the funfair, popular entertainment but above all, wrestlers.
In 1961 he won the John Moores junior award with his painting Self Portrait with Badges. It was long before denims and sneakers were part of youth culture in England, yet alone for them to be festooned with so many badges worn like campaign decorations. What’s more the artist was no longer a teenager when this painting was executed. He stares unblinkingly as if into a mirror still enthralled by such youthful things.
Portraiture has always played a major role in Peter Blake’s oeuvre whether it be fantasy or reality. From the deliberately distressed paintings of imaginary tattooed ladies of the 50s, continuing with the complex mixed media assemblages during the following decade, through to the far from innocent Brotherhood of Ruralist fairies. Once again it is The Beatles, painted before the height of their fame from a magazine photograph which is possibly his most well known portrait “from life” which he reprised as a screenprint for an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester that celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Along with fellow Royal College graduates Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips, he featured in Pop Goes the Easel, an episode of the BBC’s arts programme Monitor. This writer seems to recall the presenter Huw Weldon introducing the film with a smug “this will never last” tone in his voice.
Peter Blake is also Britain’s most popular Pop Artist in the sense that he has deliberately made his work financially accessible to all. He was commissioned by Dodo Designs to produce an enamel plaque that was to be issued in an edition of 10,000 and was originally sold for £1. Due to a fault in the enamelling process Babe Rainbow was eventually screenprinted. She is a fictional wrestler, the daughter of Doktor K Tortur, and yet another member of the Blake’s fantasy fighting team. One of his most endearing images, it has become an icon of the ‘Swinging 60s’.
Known in the popular press as the ‘Godfather of Pop’, it is the quintessential Englishness of his work that appeals. It is the ultimate fan art. His recent graphics have been collage based with a highly surrealistic element, prints of found objects, or have a retrospective feel about them that revisits his earlier work.