Spring 2000

The celebrated Mr B

Rick Poynor
Portfolio / Peter Blake

The graphic output of one of Britain’s best loved artists, the originator of the iconic cover for Sgt. Pepper

In 1991, a full eight years before the recent orgy of end-of-century list-making, Rolling Stone ran a special issue devoted to the 100 greatest album covers ever made. It contained, as these things always do, many questionable inclusions, but when it came to the number one slot, the hands-down, greatest album cover of them all, there were no unexpected blips or surprises from the panel of fifteen largely American designers, photographers, creative directors and critics. They voted as they were bound to vote – as a similar panel would doubtless vote again today – for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The cover, created by the British Pop artist Peter Blake, with his then wife, Jann Haworth, has become an icon. It may be the best-known printed image to emerge from rock. It was first parodied by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, with ruthless satirical timing, just a few months after its release in 1967 (Zappa, guaranteeing offence, dubbed his album We’re Only in It for the Money) and it has been repeatedly cited and sent up ever since, in album covers, book covers and magazine illustrations, and even by Blake himself. If Sgt. Pepper continues to dazzle some poll-respondents and list-makers as a cultural experience – a survey in The Sunday Times was moved to name it the sixteenth greatest art work of the past 1000 years, in the company of Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart – it may have something to do with its unforgettable cover.

The gallery owner Robert Fraser famously proposed to the Beatles that they ask a fine artist to do their sleeve – Peter Blake was one of his stars. Using fine artists for a graphic designer’s job was a way of proclaiming that rock and art were on a par, equal in cultural value, essentially the same thing. In this respect, Sgt. Pepper was a first, though Warhol’s signed “banana” sleeve for the Velvet Underground followed within months. With the usual circular logic the sleeve is seen as art because two artists made it, but the reality is more fluid and suggestive. The Sgt. Pepper sleeve image is part collage, part sculpture, part installation, part studio shoot. Until it was photographed by Michael Cooper, with the living Beatles in their final poses, and then printed, it did not exist as a finished work. There are out-takes with the Beatles in different positions, but clearly these aren’t “Sgt. Pepper”. The other shots include faces – Gandhi and actor Leo Gorcey – retouched out of the printed image.

If the collage of disparate heads is now an instant signifier of the Beatles’ album, the other principal signifiers – the title, lettered on the drum, and the group’s name, spelt out in real hyacinths, like a municipal flowerbed – are typographic. Making band name and title integral to the image was a highly original solution to the “problem” of type. Meanwhile, the flowerbed, mercilessly lampooned by Zappa with a collection of vegetables, is the primary device by which the image modulates from three-dimensional space at the front to the flatness of the cut-out figures at the back. Effortlessly, almost invisibly, the cover image conceals design within the processes of its own making, but that doesn’t mean the design is not there.

PAINTINGS LIKE POP MUSIC

The challenge to conventional categories and ways of thinking about art and design posed by Sgt. Pepper runs through Blake’s entire body of work. It says something for the firmness of disciplinary boundaries, at least in the recent past, that art critics have on the whole ignored work by Blake that falls outside the traditional scope of fine art. From the start of his career in the mid-1950s, he created graphics and illustrations to order for commercial clients in publishing, the music business and design, with no less commitment than he brought to his paintings. You wouldn’t know this, however, from published accounts of his work, and incredibly – he is now 67 – his graphic output has never been critically considered or assessed.

At his studio in West London, Blake continues to lead a career as both fine and commercial artist that may well be unique in a British image-maker operating at this level. The first thing you see, on arrival, is the wax figure of Sonny Liston from Madame Tussauds, used on Sgt. Pepper, the sleeves of the boxer’s silk robe now in tatters. For years, Blake was a prodigious collector of “Sunday” paintings, old books and bric-à-brac, no street stall, antique market or charity shop safe from his attentions. “At one point I was terrible,” he said recently, “I’d go down the Portobello Road and just buy old junk.” There are shelves loaded with toy elephants, boxes studded with shells, puppets with sinister grins and old enamel signs for pastilles, tobacco and tea on the wall. A ventriloquist’s dummy and the kind of upright piano once used for pub singalongs are thrown together with two of Le Corbusier’s Petit Confort chairs.

That mixture of modernity and nostalgia, the hard, bright surfaces of Pop merging with a whimsical, personal, very English take on popular culture, permeates his art. In his painting Self-Portrait with Badges Blake depicts himself in denim jacket and jeans with huge turn-ups and American baseball boots, an Elvis magazine in his hand. The setting isn’t a city street or a club, but an ordinary back garden, with a tree and a broken fence. Only children wore badges in 1961. He looks odd but gentle, defiantly individual though completely without airs. I was looking at the painting again recently in the exhibition “From the Bomb to the Beatles”, at the Imperial War Museum in London, when a man nearby exclaimed to a friend: “Peter Blake! I love Peter Blake! He’s my favourite artist, I think.” It was one of those spontaneous, un-art-historical moments when you catch a glimpse of the genuine, private affection in which an artist is held by a viewer. In the accompanying book, Blake explains his desire to capture the everyday: “I wanted to make enjoying paintings available to ordinary people. It was to be like pop music, accessible and fun.” This accessiblity makes it easy to forget now quite how radical Blake’s work was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both in its choice of subject matter and in its graphic simplicity of form.

As a junior at Gravesend School of Art, in the late 1940s, Blake studied wood engraving, silversmithing and a range of crafts. At seventeen, he wanted to become a painter, but was talked out of it by his tutors, who saw it as a difficult life and advised him to take graphic design for his national diploma instead. (Later, Blake found himself giving the same advice to his daughter, Liberty. “I said, do a graphic design course because you’ll learn more. You’ll have a better grounding.” She took his advice.) After a year, he applied to study graphic design at the Royal College of Art only to find himself accepted by the painting school, which is what he had wanted all along; he started at the RCA in 1953 after national service.

The seeds of Blake’s concerns as a painter lie in his experiences as a teenager. At the Dartford Rhythm Club he learnt about hipsters and listened to bebop. Yet he was also fascinated by the decorative paintings and lettering he saw at fairgrounds and wrestling matches, and this interest was strengthened when he was taught for a while by Enid Marx, whose English Popular and Traditional Art was published in 1946. In a Britain exhausted by the struggle and horrors of war, there was huge public enthusiasm for the culture and art of the past. A revival of Victorian display lettering was under way, encouraged by the Architectural Review (see Eye no. 28 vol. 7), and people felt a nostalgic longing – expressed in magazines, books and exhibitions – for folk art, country life and the old order represented by such things as canal barges, weathercocks, gypsy caravans, Punch and Judy shows, fairground roundabout horses, patchwork quilts and tattooing.

Blake learnt lettering skills and typography while studying design and in the first of his Pop pictures, Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady (1955), produced at the RCA, he combined a letter-spaced Fat Face with a florid script – both immaculately distressed – to give his imaginary circus sideshow portrait the appearance of an authentic artefact. Loelia’s many tattoos are meticulously faked and Blake has carved his initials into the battered panel, like a vandal’s handiwork. In his later Pop paintings of musicians (Bo Diddley, The Lettermen), wrestlers (Kamikaze, Doktor K. Tortur), pin-up girls and strippers (Babe Rainbow, Kandy) he often painted the characters’ names in uppercase, sometimes with irregular gaps between letters to simulate the artless, untutored style of commercial lettering. By the end of the 1950s, his detailed re-creations – collages in paint – of photographs, magazine covers, pendants and badges had given way to actual collages fashioned from totems of popular culture. Couples (1959) consists of 24 postcards of lovers, laid out as a grid, while Toy Shop (1962) displays a collection of novelties, targets and toys, some of them bought in Petticoat Lane, in a three-dimensional “shop window”.

CURATOR OF REMINISCENCES

In the early days, Blake made a practical decision to split his time between painting, graphics and teaching. If one of these strands wasn’t working, there would always be the other two to fall back on. At a certain level of success as an artist, he gave up teaching, but he didn’t drop graphics. As a painter, he works slowly, often returning to a canvas at intervals over many years. Sometimes he agrees, out of necessity, to allow paintings to leave the studio unfinished, as with Self-Portrait with Badges, but you get the impression that he would still repaint the loosely sketched baseball boot, given the chance. Commercial work, by contrast, presents the challenge of urgent deadlines – he is not too grand to submit to this pressure – and payment arrives much quicker than with the long haul of paint.

Blake attributes the critics’ reluctance to pay attention to his commercial work to “fine art snobbery” – not a sentiment he shares. How important to him, then, is his graphic work? “It is important,” he tells me. He’s wearing his trademark white shirt and waistcoat, buttoned to the top, and a pair of cufflinks with his initials, P and B, reversed so the viewer reads them the right way. “I suppose it would be hard to say it’s equally as important as the painting, because paintings are bigger and take longer. But the process of making a graphic is as important to me as it is to make a painting and it’s a very important part of what makes me what I am – it makes me almost a unique artist, because they are about equal.”

He draws no distinction, he explains, sitting in his kitchen, between the depth, quality and value of artistic vision achieved in his fine art and his commercial work. So far as he is concerned, the graphics express him as fully as the paintings. “I’ve always made a point of saying that the painter half never patronises the graphic designer half and the graphic designer half never patronises the painter half. If I do a graphic, I do it with as much intention, and as seriously, and with exactly the same brain process as if I was making a painting, or indeed a collage made as a piece of art. There’s no differentiation of approach.”

This is as much an unpretentious acceptance of the vicissitudes of painting as it is an attempt to make a claim for, or elevate, his graphics. “I do easy paintings and I do difficult ones,” he says. “I do what I would call bread and butter work. There are levels of aestheticism and morality and honesty. I freely admit that in the past I’ve done paintings that are less serious than others and were probably done to sell.” His graphic work is subject to the same fluctuations, although he finds he is more likely to reach the intended level in a design project than in a painting, if only because it will have a definite ending, a deadline set by the client.

A more fundamental difference lies in the degree of collaboration entailed by a commission. Blake welcomes this. Sgt. Pepper’s gallery of icons is a composite of lists from the Beatles and Robert Fraser, as well as Blake. When a boy helping with the installation asked to create a guitar out of hyacinths, he readily agreed. The iconography of his cover collage for Paul Weller’s Stanley Road album (1995) – Aretha Franklin; John Lennon; an old Green Line bus; Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott; a Lambretta scooter bristling with mirrors – was drawn from the musician in conversation. Much of Blake’s art is based on curating his own collections and here he became a curator of Weller’s reminiscences – sifting, selecting and framing these fragments to form a portrait, metaphorical and actual, that clinches the intimate, personal mood of Weller’s autobiographical songs. The pop star’s affiliation with the Mod youth movement, which in the 1960s appropriated the targets and arrows of Pop, gave Blake an excuse to claim them back as his own, then return them to Weller on his own terms, as part of the design.

Blake, like any artist, returns obsessively to his visual themes, but there are times, in the graphic work, when his readiness to accept a brief leads him into less fruitful repetition. In December 1999, the London designers Trickett & Webb asked him to create a poster for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for distribution to embassies and consulates. The concept, a flag-waving montage of Great British achievers – selected by the FCO, the British Council and the designers – was once again based on Sgt. Pepper. Blake even re-used the cover image of the waxwork moptops in grey suits. As ever, he relished the speed of the commission and was happy not to be saddled with the diplomatic minefield of choosing the line-up himself. The image was constructed digitally, to his specifications, by a computer operator, rather than with his usual scissors and glue, and its surface is glacial and bland. If Sgt. Pepper once stood for the avant-garde of popular culture, its cover a groovy visual checklist of ideas, attitudes, tastes and connections, Class of 2000’s replay, for all its crowdpleasing populism (Lennox Lewis, Princess Diana, Lara Croft) and multiculturalism by quota, has the sanctioned air of public academic art.

FLAGS, FLOWERS, FOLLIES, FOLK ART

Blake calls one of his pieces A Museum for Myself, but it’s a subtle distinction when his entire studio is a museum for himself. The space is divided into working areas – a painting room, a wood engraving and etching room, a sculpture room and a collage room – but the piles of framed pictures and the endless collections, everywhere you turn, fill the rooms and cause them to merge (see inside cover). You could spend many days here studying the driftwood, taking stock of the busts and figurines, and itemising the displays of clay pipes. In the sculpture room, an assemblage is under way on a table, another of Blake’s “museums” in miniature, composed of plastic cowboys, farm animals and birds, classical columns and a toy skeleton – all in shades of white.

The collage room is a small chamber, a chapel of collage, panelled on four walls with dark wooden screens glazed with Victorian collages of women, children, pets and trysting bucolic lovers garlanded with blooms. On the shelves outside are books on Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and the history of collage. Nineteen boxes contain postcards alphabetically ordered by category – Flags, Flowers, Follies, Folk Art, Food, Football . . . Men, Mona Lisa, Monkeys, Mountains, Museums, Music Hall – as source material and reference. Paper files piled on benches bulge with thousands of drawings, photographs and engravings that Blake has filleted from yellowing magazines and old books acquired for a few pence over the years. There’s a “Wrestling” file, a “Marilyn” file, an “Unusual People” file – full of Victorian handbills and pamphlets recording appearances by Alfonso the Human Ostrich, Jo Jo the Dog-faced Boy, the Russian Giantess and the Industrious Fleas. In a folder labelled “On the Beach”, for a collage in progress, there are dozens of pictures of recreational scenes half cut out by Blake. Touching these delicate leaves of paper, poised between their original and final states, waiting to be re-animated, confirms that his work is founded on the material “thingness” of things – to be handled, weighed, valued and placed – as much as the details of a particular image. This is why digitising the process, “handling” the components as signs but neglecting them as objects, doesn’t work.

At the age of 65, after two years as associate artist at the National Gallery, Blake decided to retire emotionally from fine art. He would continue working – he is as busy as ever – but he would cease to care about the art world’s opinion, and whatever followed would be an “encore” to his body of work. As part of this process of “tidying the desk”, as he puts it, he is curating a series of exhibitions. The first, “A Cabinet of Curiosities”, at the Morley Gallery, London, last autumn, showed objects from his collections. “About Collage”, at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, in April, will examine the phenomenon of collage in twentieth-century art. Alongside works from the Tate’s collection, it will include pieces from Blake’s holdings of popular art, and examples of his own work, such as Toy Shop. He hopes to borrow an unseen art school collage by John Lennon, owned by Paul McCartney, and library books defaced with collages in the 1960s by the playwright Joe Orton.

Blake has more or less stopped collecting these days, except for the parade of little elephants that filled the Morley Gallery window “like a great big Cornell box”. But you can sense the enthusiasm of the inveterate collector at the prospect of ushering the crowds into his Liverpool sideshow to enjoy wonders from afar. A collection might be conceived as an unglued form of collage and, in Blake’s work, the two activities exist on the same aesthetic continuum, like fine art and design. As Kurt Schwitters revealed, collage can redeem the contents of the waste basket, find beauty in the ephemeral, take a bus ticket from the gutter and transmute it into art. Blake isn’t above insinuating one on to an album cover as a private nod to his hero, just for the fun of it. He is a master of the light touch.

“About Collage” opens at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool on 6 April 2000.

First published in Eye no. 35 vol. 9, 2000

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