Interview - Sir Peter Blake: The Godfather of Pop Art still a creative force
Source: Yorkshire Post, written by Chris Bond
11th March 2011
Sir Peter Blake is one of Britain’s best known living artists. He talks to Chris Bond on the eve of a new exhibition featuring some of his most famous prints in Harrogate.
Half a century has passed since Peter Blake emerged as one of a cluster of exciting young artists associated with the burgeoning Pop Art Movement.
During that time he has produced collage and sculpture and, unlike some artists, has never been afraid to dip into the world of commercial art, creating album covers for the likes of The Who, Paul Weller and, most famously, The Beatles.
He has also inspired a future generation of British artists including Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin and remains a leading light in the British art world.
Tomorrow, a new solo exhibition, Sir Peter Blake –Twenty Years of Printmaking, opens at RedHouse Originals Gallery, in Harrogate. It features some of the rarest and most sought after original and limited edition prints Blake has ever produced, including portraits of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and his ironic artwork for The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
Interestingly, though, the man dubbed the “Godfather of Pop Art” became an artist by happenstance, rather than any early aptitude for the subject. “During the Second World War I was evacuated and afterwards I went to sit an examination at technical college in Gravesend and someone told me the art school was round the corner, so I went there and sat an exam and at the age of 14 suddenly I found myself at art school. It was a gift,” he says.
It was here that he was taught the traditional skills of drawing before studying at the Royal College of Art, in London. Blake says he benefited from a world where attitudes were changing.
“Before the war I would never have had the chance to go to art school, but because I could get a grant, and with a bit of support from my parents, suddenly it was possible for someone like me from a working class background to go.”
It was these working class roots which informed his early work. “In those days I would go to jazz clubs, watch football, speedway and wrestling and my work was influenced by all those things. I painted wrestlers because that was what I knew about,” he says.
Although Blake’s generation, including David Hockney and Richard Hamilton, are associated with swinging 60s London, it was the previous decade when the Pop Art moniker was born.
The Independent Group, co-founded by artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi in London in 1952, is widely regarded as the precursor to Pop Art, while across the pond American artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were creating works inspired by everyday ephemera.
Andy Warhol is often cited as the founder of Pop Art but Blake, who left college in 1956, created his Captain Webb matchboxes before Warhol’s soup tin paintings used consumer products as art. By the early 1960s Blake’s career was taking off. He was featured in Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes the Easel in 1962 and the following year he had his first solo show.
It was a fruitful period, not only for Blake, but for other aspiring British talent. “It was an exciting time, you not only had young British artists making a name for themselves, you also had working class musicians, photographers and actors. Suddenly there was a whole different cultural set up,” he says.
His interest in popular culture drew him beyond the traditional boundaries of art. “I’ve always been interested in music and musicians, whether it’s jazz music or rock ‘n’ roll and I felt that art was consumed in the same way music was consumed, so I was fascinated to see if people who bought records would also be interested in the visual image on the label.”
This led to him creating the iconic Sgt Pepper’s cover for which he was famously paid just £200. In the past he has said this became an “albatross” because people didn’t appreciate the rest of his work, the paintings, sculptures and drawings. But his stance now appears to have mellowed. “At the time I regarded it as just another job, but because of what it was and their [The Beatles’] continued fame it has taken its place in music’s pantheon. I remember going down to the Abbey Road studios to watch them recording, so I knew all The Beatles and I’m still a friend of Paul’s.”
Over the years he has produced many notable album sleeves, including Paul Weller’s Stanley Road and the original Band Aid single, but interestingly it is the artwork for Brian Wilson’s little known album Gettin’ in Over My Head which is one of his favourites.
In 2005, the Sir Peter Blake Music Art Gallery was opened by the artist at Leeds University.
The gallery includes a signed copy of his famous Sgt Pepper print and tomorrow he is back at the university where he is being awarded an honorary doctorate in music. Blake has long been a champion of young artists – he’s a fan of the Brit Art movement – but as he enters the twilight of his career he is concerned about those following in his footsteps.
“People like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are very good artists and their success gave an enormous fillip to the art world, but at the moment it’s a tough time financially to be an artist.”
As for his own work, though, the 78 year-old says there just aren’t enough hours in the day. “The problem I have now is there’s not enough time, I could fill four lifetimes with all the things that I want to do.”
Sir Peter Blake – Twenty Years of Printmaking is on show at RedHouse Originals Gallery, Harrogate, from March 12-April 10. 01423 884 440, www.redhouseoriginals.com
Portrait of an artist’s life
Born in Dartford, Kent, in 1932.
Won the John Moores junior award for his 1961 Self-Portrait With Badges.
Featured in the Young Contemporaries exhibition in 1961, along with David Hockney and R B Kitaj, which first identified him with the Pop Art movement.
Blake has designed numerous record covers including Paul Weller’s Stanley Road, The Who’s Live at Leeds 2, and the Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Received a knighthood for his services to art in 2002.
In 2005, he opened the Sir Peter Blake Music Art Gallery, at Leeds University.