In the cosy kitchen of his west London studio, Peter Blake is showing me the pictures from his new show. There are some recent portraits which show he’s lost none of his old verve, but it’s the drawings which really grab you. ‘I’ve always drawn,’ he says. ‘I’ve kept most of my drawings over the years.’ A lot of them have never been seen before. Some of them date back to his early teens. It’s a visual diary of his long, creative life.
Here he is in LA, waking up at David Hockney’s place with a filthy hangover. There he is in Charing Cross Hospital, nursing a bandaged nose. This makes him sound like a party animal, but nothing could be further from the truth. As befits a bloke who’s designed record covers for everyone from Paul Weller to The Beatles, he knows lots of rock stars (Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey and Ronnie Wood were among the guests at his 80th birthday party – Madness were the house band) but like most successful artists, he’s actually pretty abstemious. He never took drugs. He hardly drinks these days. Most days you’ll find him here, head down, hard at work.
‘When I was going to art school, the basis of what you did was to learn to draw,’ he tells me. That solid base of proper draughtsmanship has been the backbone of his life’s work. Even when he’s away from his studio, he’s never without his sketchbook. Like an athlete in the gym, it keeps him supple. ‘Drawing’s always been a strong part of what I do.’
He seems to have been around forever, at least for as long as I can remember. When my parents were still at art school, he was already a rising star. He straddles several generations, and several artistic genres. Like a character from one of his surreal artworks, he’s curiously ageless. Bald and tubby when he was young, he used to seem old before his time. Conversely, now he really is old, with a walking stick and a white wispy beard, somehow he seems almost boyish. He’s 86 now, but his workrate is awesome and his imagination is as sharp as ever. His studio is crammed with bric-a-brac, from Victoriana to Americana – all these curios slowly seeping into his dreamlike art.
Having interviewed him twice before, I’d learnt there are two things not to say to him. One: don’t call him Sir Peter – he was thrilled to get a knighthood, but he doesn’t like to stand on ceremony. Two: don’t bother asking him about Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s not touchy about it (he’s not really touchy about anything) but he’s tired of talking about it, and after 50 years who can blame him? Yes, it was a masterpiece – a fitting cover for one of the greatest records of all time. Yes, it’s a travesty that he only got £200 for it. But after everything else he’s done, it seems daft to bang on about a one-off job he did with his first wife, Jann Haworth. This is the man who virtually invented British Pop Art! It’s like meeting Michelangelo and asking him what it was like doing the titles for the South Bank Show.
He was born in Dartford in 1932. His dad was an electrician, his mum was a nurse. It sounds like a secure start in life, but Peter was an anxious little boy. ‘I was always pathologically shy.’ He was evacuated during the war, which exacerbated his nervous disposition. ‘It was an enormous influence, because that bit of childhood was just taken away – from seven to thirteen,’ he says. ‘You were expecting to be invaded any day. It was a frightening time.’ Toys were in short supply – today his studio is full of toys. ‘It was a very confused childhood which, in part, contributed to what I became.’
He failed his Eleven Plus (his brother and sister both passed, which must have hurt) and ended up at Gravesend Technical College. Luckily, the technical college shared a site with Gravesend School of Art. Peter displayed a flair for drawing, and wangled a transfer to the art school. ‘That was a very comprehensive course – life drawing, engraving, etching, woodcarving, sculpture, anatomy, perspective, architecture…’ This thorough all-round training gave him the ideal foundation as an artist. From Gravesend, he won a place at the Royal College of Art. ‘The first year there was drawing and painting from the model,’ he remembers. ‘I was actually taught to draw, and it was very important – since then, I’ve drawn all the time.’
At art school he led a double life, immersed in the art world by day (Quentin Crisp was a model in his life drawing class) and returning to his streetwise passions every evening – pop music, wrestling, speedway. This culture clash became the mainstay of his art. His philosophy was simple. He wanted to make pictures which people would enjoy in the same way that he enjoyed pop music. His pioneering brand of Pop Art was the result.
Like the best pop music, his work was full of fun – a glorious release from the austerity of 50s Britain. ‘There were still bomb sites, some stuff was still rationed,’ he recalls. Against that gloomy backdrop, his colourful paintings felt like a great escape. His early work predated American Pop Art and it was also very different – quirky, eccentric, and rooted in British history.
The thing that made Blake so different from other Pop Artists was that he lived the life he painted. ‘What they were doing was discussing popular culture from the outside. The difference was that I was making popular art from the inside.’ Other Pop Artists looked ahead, towards a brave new world of mass production. Blake looked back, to the lost world of Music Hall. Romantic and nostalgic, his work was like a magic fairground ride.
Living in London, Blake was at the centre of the so-called Swinging 60s, but he became tired of life in the fast lane. In 1975 he left the Big Smoke, with Jann Haworth and their two daughters, and bought an old railway station in the West Country. Here they founded The Brotherhood of Ruralists, inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, painting pastoral themes in a realistic style. In an age of minimal, conceptual art, this was really rather radical. ‘It was a group of people painting very much against the tide. To say at that point that sentimentalism could be a subject for a painting was heresy. We had quite a battle against the critics, and in self-defence became quite militant.’ Yet unlike a lot of 70s art, their work has stood the test of time.
It wasn’t just about painting in a different way. It was about living a different life. They grew their own food and celebrated the summer and winter solstice. ‘We started our own school, called the Looking Glass School, for about 10 children, in a barn I’d bought in Somerset,’ he tells me. ‘It was an idyllic time which came to rather a brutal end.’ In 1979 Blake’s marriage broke up and he returned to London. Back in London, he met his second wife, the artist Chrissy Wilson, with whom he had another daughter. They’ve been together ever since but after all these years he still remembers The Brotherhood of Ruralists with fondness. ‘It was a very happy time.’
Although he achieved recognition early on, he never became a superstar. He’s had to teach to pay his way, which kept him connected with the real world. As Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy, he’d invite students back to his studio. ‘I’d make up a goodie bag for each of them, and that would contain a sketch book, a pencil, an eraser and a pencil sharpener and a drawing by me.’ ‘I can’t teach you to draw,’ he’d tell them. ‘Just draw.’
Like all great artists, he’s always painted what’s in front of him, and what made him such an inspiring teacher was that he encouraged his pupils to do the same. ‘What are you interested in?’ he asked his most celebrated pupil, Ian Dury. ‘Rock & Roll and pin-up girls,’ said Dury. ‘Well, why don’t you paint that?’ said Blake. He didn’t tell his students what to do or how to do it, but he broadened their horizons. ‘As a teacher, I opened the door.’
It’s this attitude that’s kept him young. He’s always been open to new ideas. When the Young British Artists came along in the late 80s, he was already pushing 60, but he understood their work straight away – and vice versa. You can understand why he’s friends with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Blessed with the same common touch, the same sense of mischief, his playful work and theirs really isn’t so far apart.
Even in his one man show at the Tate, in 1983, he did things in a different way. He played music in every room – something the Tate had never done before. There was Elgar in the Ruralist room and pop music in the Pop Art room. Ian Dury wrote an anthem for the exhibition, called Peter the Painter. When Dury died, in 2000, Blake returned the compliment, painting a portrait of his old pupil for a tribute album in Dury’s honour.
He’s painted Robbie Williams’ portrait too – intended as the cover of Williams’ album Swing When You’re Winning. In the end the record company decided on a different image but Blake doesn’t seem that bothered. Like the Old Masters he reveres, he’s always been a gun for hire. ‘I’m a kind of jobbing artist, a journeyman artist,’ he says, with typical self-effacement. Rembrandt and Rubens would have said the same.
Peter Blake – A Life in Drawings & Watercolours is at Waddington Custot, London W1, from July 5 to September 8 2018