In conversation with the Pop Art maestro
First published in the September 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
Sir Peter Blake, Royal Academician and national legend, could have been Britain’s most creative sparkie! This alarming factoid comes out at the close of our conversation, when I ask what he wanted to be as a child. ‘As soon as I had to think about it, I was,’ he states. All very Zen-esque, but had it not been for an impromptu suggestion that he ‘nip round the corner to do a drawing exam’ on the day he was meant to be enrolling at technical college, aged 13, he would undoubtedly have followed in his electrician father’s footsteps. As it was, fate intervened to lead him in a different direction. And so it is that we meet two days before his 80th birthday (June 25), on the eve of a glorious new solo show at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester. We sit together in his large, light-filled studio, set in an old Georgian stables not far from the lovely and leafy enclaves of Chiswick where he lives. Such are the consequences of a single act of spontaneity.
So what exactly happened after that exam? As he puts it, with a whole new world of possibility opened up before him, he was suddenly freed from the hitherto unperceived constraint of familial expectation. ‘I was seven when World War II started, 13 when it ended. It eliminated the childhood collecting mentality and I had very few toys. Psychologically, there were so many other things going on.’ Thus, the newly awakened art student wasted no time in reclaiming his lost youth by going straight to a local junk yard. He bought ‘a painting of Queen Mary, a papier-mâché tray and a full set of bound Shakespeare. I guess it all built up from there.’
Indeed, it’s hard to describe the ‘all’ to which Blake refers, his ‘repository of everything’ amassed over the years since that day and housed within his studio. You can wander among it, weaving through a mini maze of filing cabinets, plan chests, cupboards and tables, every surface covered with odd and assorted ephemera, carefully and neatly curated. There is no hint of chaos. And not a speck of dust either, which is something of a marvel considering we’re talking about rows of marching plastic soldiers, covens of dolls gossiping in corners, plywood aeroplanes dive-bombing from the ceiling, his father’s train set stationed on a table, model villages replete with trees and animals, framed photographs galore and even a life-size model of a boxer.
One imagines Blake, a diminutive figure, with more than a touch of the off-duty Father Christmas to him, coiffed as he is plus white beard and cane, happily pottering around his swag, arranging and re-arranging to his heart’s content. But if there were ever a fire, what would he grab? ‘That’s a terrible question!’ he exclaims, musing darkly. ‘Oh, that’s really difficult, horrible, do you run and grab a passport? A picture?’ In the end, thanks to his meticulous organisation, there’s a specific group of items that would be whisked to safety: ‘Tom Thumb’s midget boots; Max Miller’s gloves; wrestler Kendo Nagasaki’s mask and the hat worn by Douglas Fairbanks in the 1922 film Robin Hood.’
But this isn’t hoarding gone mad; these are the tools of Blake’s trade, the fodder for the narrative collages he’s famed for. My favourite is the one he composed for the cover of Oasis’s Stop the Clocks album, although most people seem to prefer the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sleeve he did in 1967. ‘People always mention the Beatles cover,’ he says crossly, ‘it annoys me intensely. It’s definitely been an albatross.’ So we skip past this and his enduring irritation at receiving a fixed fee of just £200 for it too (‘I don’t think Apple understood how influential the cover was at the time’). Is there anyone contemporary he’d like to design a cover for? ‘I’ve pretty much worked with everyone I’d want to – Oasis, The Who, Brian Wilson – not the Stones, but then they had their own style.’
Nevertheless, fêted as he is for his commercial artwork, and while he’s very happy with the moniker ‘Pop artist’ – ‘it’s what I was trained to do’ – he feels he’s struggled to be accepted as a fine artist, which, it appears, also still irks. ‘Early art school advice said to do commercial art, and I did my National Service as a graphic designer. It’s a regret, but it’s the path I took despite being accepted at the Royal College of Art as a painter.’ But perhaps this is a purely personal insecurity as he was awarded a knighthood for services to art in 2002, which he says he never expected, having already received a CBE in 1983. ‘Hockney turned it down,’ he notes, ‘but I’m proud of it. I like it. I don’t flaunt it, but there are so few in the art world. I think Howard Hodgkin is the only other painting knight.’
And so I take my leave, but before I go, I remind him of a quote I read in another interview. I want to know if he still means it: ‘My morality has changed. I wouldn’t sell myself for anything, but I’d consider any offer.’ He pauses, smiles, and says, ‘Yes, that’s still true. After all, I’ve never had a million in the bank.’
The Q&A Sir Peter Blake
Tell me five words to describe yourself. Calm. Generous – of spirit, not necessarily financially. Hardworking. Enthusiastic. Tired.
Who’s your favourite musician? Chet Baker. I saw him the first time he came to London in 1956.
What is your greatest fear? It’s not dying, oddly. You know, I don’t think I’m frightened of anything anymore. There’s a low fog of worry, but no one big fear.
If you could be a different nationality, what would it be? In a way that’s down to favourite countries, isn’t it? Unlike a lot of artists, I’ve never lived abroad. I’ve always lived in and around London. Perhaps I’d be Dutch but only because I like Amsterdam.
Who is your favourite character in history? Winston Churchill. As a child of World War II, Hitler was the ultimate villain, so Churchill was the ultimate hero.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? I don’t think I do.
Who would you most like/have liked to meet? I think I’ve met most of the people I’d like to have met: Sol Steinberg, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Brian Wilson – The Beach Boys are a favourite band of mine.
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? Is that really asking who do I hate? There’s got to be a politician… I’ll come back to you on that one!
What’s your favourite snack? Cheese on toast, with mustard.
What do you think you’d taste like? I’d be relatively tender because I’m quite fat, but if you were just licking me, I think I’d be rather sweet.
If you were an animal, what would you be? A chimpanzee! Specifically, Cheetah, the chimp in the Tarzan films.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Illicit eating of things I shouldn’t. Chrissie [his wife] tries to keep me on a diet.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? I suppose just being where I am, getting to 80. Being alive. I’m happy I’ve achieved some kind of position in the art world.
What was your worst subject in school? My schooling was so weird, it’s hard to think… Probably languages.
Do you believe in luck? Yes.
What star sign are you? Cancer.
Are you religious? Yes. I was brought up to believe there’s something.
Do you have a motto? I have two: ‘living well is the best revenge’; and ‘Staying ahead of the avant-garde’.