To mark the occasion of Sir Peter Blake’s appearance at Pin Drop Studio, he sat down with us in his studio for this exclusive interview.
“I suppose that, in a sense, my work is all about storytelling,” says Sir Peter Blake.
The artist is alluding to his celebrated paintings of everyone, from Elvis and Ian Dury to boxers and tattooed strongmen, not forgetting, of course, his legendary collaged cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. “But I think this is the first time that I’ve actually sat down and told a story.”
Sir Peter is referring to his Pin Drop Studio event at Soho House, reading from a selection of his favourite books, including Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. “I’m going to do the beginnings and endings, because those are my favourite bits of most books, and these have particularly good ones,” he says, settling himself on a sofa in his beautifully light and airy West London house. “They’re also books I’ve illustrated, or always wanted to illustrate. But trying to decide was a bit like choosing your Desert Island Discs. Just as many got left out.”
Many of those ones that got away – novels, biographies, art monographs – are arrayed around us on the living room’s groaning shelves, and downstairs in Sir Peter’s impressive library. It’s a far cry from when he was evacuated from London as a child during World War II, and had just one book to his name. “It was a boy’s adventure story called The Bush Ranger’s Secret,” he smiles, “and I’ve still got it. I remember when I first started at art school in Gravesend, just after the war, I went to a junk shop and bought a set of Shakespeare, calf-bound, along with a papier mache tray and a painting of the Queen Mary.”
From that humble start, Sir Peter has amassed a vast collection of oddball memorabilia over the decades, including stuffed animal tableaux, Punch and Judy puppets, fairground paraphernalia, and marching toy elephants. “I think the collecting has fed into the work, and vice versa,” he says. “Right from the start, I painted the things I was interested in, from comics and music to film stars and fairground people, and that’s what led into pop art.”
Sir Peter is now 83, a white-bearded, avuncular, grandfatherly figure who walks with a stick (“the knees are going”). He insists that he’s not slowing down – “if anything, I’ve speeded up in the past year” – and has summer shows in Welbeck, Padstow, Paris and Sweden to prove it. He’s also designed a “pop art Bentley” – a GT V8 S convertible adorned with a big red heart on the bonnet – to be auctioned at the Goodwood Festival of Speed at the end of June; a further reminder that he originally trained as a graphic designer, and sees no distinction between commercial and fine art. “I’m a bastard painter/designer,” he declares with a grin. Perhaps for this reason, it sometimes feels like he’s been undervalued compared to peers like David Hockney and Richard Hamilton. “People can be sniffy,” he says. “I’ve never been asked to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, for instance, and the Tate perhaps don’t take me as seriously as they might have done.”
Despite this, he says, he’s content with his lot: “I’m comfortable, I’m not chasing money, and I’m never jealous.” Least of all of his friend Damien Hirst, who’s “a millionaire for the things he’s made, and I admire those things.” It turns out, however, that Sir Peter Blake does have one lurking ambition left to realise, and, fittingly, it’s literature-related. “I’d love to paint an allegory,” he says. “Everything I’ve painted has been quite literal. I’ve got a big canvas in the studio which would be perfect for it. Yes, yes,” he concludes excitedly, sounding like Alice’s White Rabbit, “it’s time to get allegorical in my old age.”
– Words by Stuart Husband