In this unmissable extract from ‘Peter Blake: Collage’ curator Natalie Rudd speaks to legendary collage artist Peter Blake – creator of the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – about ‘artistic retirement’, the beauty of Google, and what The Spice Girls have to do with Duchamp.
Natalie Rudd: Your journey from childhood to art school was an eventful one, wasn’t it? You were pulled in many different directions.
Peter Blake: I was seven when the Second World War started. I was evacuated twice, once to Essex, on the day after war was declared, and then to my grandmother’s in Worcester for the last year of the war. At the end of the war I came back to Dartford and pretty much went straight to art school. I must have been fourteen when I started at Gravesend Technical School and Art School. [I studied] woodwork, silversmithing, a whole range of subjects, so you got a terrific education.
One of my teachers suggested I try for the Royal College of Art as a commercial artist, an illustrator. I put in one portrait of my sister, and I was accepted by the painting school, which is what I had wanted all along. But then the interruption was National Service. I started at the Royal College in 1953, having never been a painting student. Painting students were different people: they were mucky, they had paint on their clothes, they didn’t comb their hair, they had a certain quality, whereas the graphic students tended to have ‘college boy’ haircuts and were a bit ‘mod’. I was kind of torn. I was a ‘mod’ who suddenly was a bohemian. My craft had been Roman lettering. Very few painters would have known much about lettering, but if I did lettering in a painting, I would have been very aware of whether it was a newspaper caption or a shop front or a comic. It gave me added information that took away something from my authenticity as a painter.
NR: It is interesting that you felt torn. Looking back at the paintings made during your studies at the Royal College, I am struck by the array of stuff scattered on floors, pinned to walls, held in hands. Your paintings look like collages.
PB: I think that came out of the fact that I was very interested in trompe l’oeil and had seen some beautiful nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil paintings. Quite often I was trying to achieve a trompe l’oeil effect, a deception of the eye, to make you think it was real. Sometimes people would say ‘Why didn’t you just stick it down? Why did you bother to paint it?’ And I think that’s always been a question and part of the process. Even now I might spend weeks painting something that I could stick down in seconds!
NR: Collage was not on the painting syllabus at the Royal College of Art, was it? Your discovery of collage was extra-curricular.
PB: Yes. It would have been towards the end of my time at the Royal College. I guess it was 1955. I was sharing a flat with Richard Smith and he was friendly with Jasia Reichardt. Jasia’s uncle and aunt were called the Themersons, and they were friends with Kurt Schwitters. Dick knew about that world through Jasia, and he explained to me about Schwitters, and we talked about collage and then we were just playing, making some collages.
NR: Those first collages are small in scale and abstract in nature, often made by the informal piecing together of torn fragments.
PB: I think that was probably because Dick was doing the really early British Abstract Expressionism and I was making my way as a realist, but still I would have had a foot in the abstract camp. All my best friends were Abstract Expressionists – Dick, Robyn Denny and William Green – so that would have accounted for the possibility of me making those early abstract works. And we were probably even sharing materials because when I look at them again, I must have had an old piece of rough hessian sacking and some coloured papers, and mine are done on old bits of cigar boxes, or there is one done on a little white strip of wood – just cut off a skirting board or something like that.
NR: Having introduced the concept of artistic retirement at the age of 65, you now consider yourself to be in your self-titled ‘Late Period’, don’t you?
PB: The retirement concept was just that I was retiring from the actual contest. I would keep working, but things like ambition and avarice were no longer important. And then when I turned 75 I decided I would go into my Late Period. I defined when that would be, rather than have the art world decide. Recently I’ve felt that, in a curious way, I have completed my career. It’s not that I want to stop working – I work every day – but in a way I have closed the door on my career. I have achieved specific things, like becoming an RA and the knighthood. There are no more ambitions left like that.
NR: I am struck by one of your most recently completed works, Late Period: Battle, 1964–2018, which had developed across six decades. It’s a rare union of collage and paint on the same canvas and you appear to have used collage to resolve the painting, with collage having come to the rescue?
PB: The story of that painting is that in 1964 I rented a studio for a very short time. For the first time I had more than a small room to work in, so I ordered a big canvas and decided to paint the most unfashionable thing I could think of – I mean nobody was painting battles in the early sixties! I decided that the battle should be between Hollywood characters, the vague story being that the bad people were attacking the women of the good people. I worked on it for a long time, but then I had to give up the studio so I cut about three foot off the end of the canvas so that it would fit into the next space. It hung around for years.
About ten years ago I decided to carry on with it but I didn’t just want to pick up from where I left off, so I put a thin white glaze over the whole thing to seal it in time and then I would have started to paint over that. But I realised that I was very unlikely to even do that: it was a big project, I was getting older and time was getting short. I had been doing a lot of work with someone on the computer and I suddenly thought, ‘Why not blow them up?’ I tried an experiment of blowing up an image to the right size on the computer and then I was going to paint it. Then I thought, ‘Why not just collage it?’ So that is what I did. I still had half of the cut-off bit so what you have now is the shortened painting with the glaze, and then the top righthand section is the original bit before the glaze, and a square in the bottom righthand corner is a written explanation of how it came to get to that stage.
NR: I have in mind a humorous kind of competition – the battle between collage and painting. Is there a conflict between the two?
PB: No, I don’t think there is. I think it’s whatever is the best way to do something. I’d done Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour, which was a series of five quite large pictures, such as Elvis meeting The Spice Girls and Duchamp, which was an interesting fantasy idea for me. It was a limited approach and painting suited that. With the Cornell series, once the floodgate was open – the very idea that he loved Europe but had never been – it opened up so many possibilities. In one of them is the Waterlooplein Market in Amsterdam which was the first really marvellous market I went to. I had been going to Portobello Road but the idea of a great big market every day, I thought Cornell would have loved that! Everything on the stall is the stuff Cornell used in his collages – so it’s marbles and clay pipes and he is dreaming about it. In another dreaming scene called Thinking about Jesus, Cornell is in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Jesus comes to wake him up and all around him in the sky hover different incidents in the life of Jesus made using engravings of famous paintings. The best way to tell that story was through collage because I had already cut up the book: I had all the incidents. It could only have been collage – it couldn’t have been painting. It’s not arbitrary, it comes out of necessity
NR: How do you source the material for your two-dimensional collages?
PB: Well, at the moment there are various ways of working. For some of the Cornell collages I find the background as an image. So if Cornell is in Rome I will find a really nice postcard of Rome and I will blow that up on the computer. I am starting out with a background done as an inkjet and then if things are very particular I will make them on the computer. For things like marbles, we (I work with someone else, I couldn’t do it on my own) will source marbles on Google and then we print them out onto thin paper I can cut. You can pretty much find anything on Google, and I use that quite often, but I still use found materials – the Larousse dictionaries I am still calling on sometimes. Or there is chance – there is a particular book I bought of French engravings of animals dressed as human beings – well, that’s a story in itself!