The groundbreaking artist documented the birth of youth culture and created the most famous album cover in history. Now with a new exhibition, he talks about what inspires him – from corn dollies to music halls
P eter Blake’s wife, Chrissy, is lovingly protective of her husband, who will turn 90 on 25 June. I don’t know where she has been listening, but when she hears the word “Beatles” she pops into the upstairs lounge where he is ensconced in an armchair.
“Let this be the only article in the last 55 years that doesn’t mention the Beatles,” she pleads.
Some hope. Blake, with his first wife, the artist Jann Haworth, designed perhaps the most famous album cover in history for the Fab Four’s conceptual 1967 spectacular Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: ever since, his fame as an artist has been inextricable from this one crazy image of John, Paul, George and Ringo posing in lurid neo-Edwardian garb among a crowd of famous and less famous heroes.
Chrissy is, of course, right – it’s not as if this was the be-all and end-all of Blake’s vision. To celebrate his birthday, he has an exhibition at the Waddington Custot gallery in London, of a passion to which he has dedicated four decades: visualising Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices”, Under Milk Wood. Blake has recreated the characters’ funny, filthy dreams in tender watercolours and portrays all the people of the imaginary village Llareggub with photographic clarity, as if it were a documentary instead of a dream play. He brings the same innocence and sincerity to Under Milk Wood as he has done to all his crazes.
In fact, we weren’t discussing Sgt Pepper when Chrissy got worried. We were talking about Blake’s love of doo-wop, the harmonious genre of male singing invented in the 1940s US that fed into modern pop music.
“I loved people like the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s and Kirby Stone Four. Doo-wop groups. Out of that came the Beach Boys and the Lettermen,” says Blake. These were his personal music passions, as well as bebop and R&B – “Bo Diddley I was an enormous fan of.”
And the Beatles? He pauses reflectively.
“I was interested in them. I’ve never been an enormous fan of the Beatles like I am of the Beach Boys. It’s a dangerous thing to say, I hope that won’t be your headline: ‘Peter Blake doesn’t like the Beatles.’”
But this is not a criticism of the Beatles so much as a reflection on what it is to be a “fan”, which Blake is: and it is at the very heart of his work. He is a fan who has got to know his idols, which led him from making a fan’s image of the Beach Boys in 1964 to collaborating with Brian Wilson. He has also had a friendly working relationship with the Who since he first met them in the early 60s: he has designed two of their album covers.
“Their manager [Kit Lambert] said that they needed a change of direction and he was going to call them The Pop Art Group. He researched pop art and made a look with the union jack jacket. I think Roger [Daltrey] had a belt with black and white stripes which I had originally appropriated from Jasper [Johns]. And then the badges. They designed that Who look on the work I was doing.”
Blake’s version of pop art is warm, affectionate and respectful. He has never been a lofty artist standing above mass culture. His idiosyncratic tastes in comics, fairgrounds, tattoos, wrestling, toy shops, badges and the union jack played a crucial part in the blend of modernity and nostalgia that shaped a new culture in 1960s Britain.
Blake started using pop imagery in the mid-50s as a student at the Royal College of Art. Born in Dartford, Kent, in 1932, he studied graphic design at Gravesend Technical College, then did his national service before starting on the Royal College painting course, where senior students were encouraged to paint what they liked.
“I suppose at that point my life appeared: I started to paint autobiographically, and it’s pictures of my little brother and cousin with badges on, and my sister and me reading comics. My life at that point was popular culture. In the evenings I would go to professional wrestling … I went to Bexleyheath Drill Hall, that was the local venue. It was packed every week. The first fight I saw was Mick McManus who went on for years as one of the stars. Pop art and popular culture are quite separate entities. I could be a pop artist and not be interested in popular culture, but as it happens I am.”
In 1961, Blake painted a self-portrait that is one of the great works of pop art. He stands in a suburban garden, staring forwards, like the clown Gilles who was painted by the French Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. Except, instead of a clown outfit, Blake is wearing denim and trainers. He is holding an Elvis magazine and sports badges on his jacket.
“It was a very early embryonic collection of badges. It’s been said that they emblazoned my interests and my likes but it wasn’t particularly that – they were the only ones I had. I didn’t know who Adlai Stevenson (the 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential candidate) was. It was just what I had. Since then I have collected hundreds. In 1961, a man wouldn’t have worn badges. But a child would have done, a little boy would have done. So it is a boy-like figure, but a man. Also wearing denim in 61 was quite early, and to be wearing trainers was ahead of its time.”
This is a remarkably sensitive reading of his own Self-Portrait With Badges. It is a portrait of the birth of youth culture itself. As he puts it, a “man” in 1961 was not supposed to wear badges or denim or trainers. A man was meant to be suited and serious.
I ask about the shirt, which looks like a Fred Perry. “I was pretty much a mod at that point. So it’s a mod shirt, yeah.”
“You’ve still got that red shirt,” says Chrissy.
Yet Blake’s definition of popular culture was not confined to the young and fashionable. “I was very interested in music halls. I called my Royal College thesis Don’t Point, It’s Nude, and it was about the nude shows that were being introduced into music halls by Paul Raymond. I was going every week to the halls to see Max Wall, Max Miller and all the greats. The music hall was dying. You would go and see a comedian in the first house and there would be 30 people. Raymond thought nudity would revive the music hall – in fact it killed it a little bit quicker. I was writing it in 1956: there were some great shows that year where they could make the six become sex and say: “It’s a happy nineteen fifty sex.” I loved all that. So, yes, I’ve always been interested in the halls, and things like corn dollies and the actual popular arts.”
The folk art Blake loves has always fuelled him. His early works include two buxom fairground women, painted naively on wood and decorated with collage and glass beads. One is Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady, the other Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness. Blake’s fascination with the quirky side of popular culture, from the music halls to these sideshow hoardings, is mirrored perfectly in the pop songs of the 60s. The Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! takes its title from an 1843 circus poster that John Lennon found in an antique shop.
“I’ve been a friend of them, certainly. I met them in 1963. And … no, I am a fan, I am a fan.” Blake is warming to the Beatles.
His friendship with the band began when they came to London to appear on a TV show and Blake was invited to sit in, through an art director friend from Liverpool who had been telling him about this great new group.
“Billy Fury was top of the bill and two boys who had just left the Shadows; there was a female singer called Billie Davis. The Beatles did the opening song Please Please Me, I think. I sat in the audience – just me, nobody else, and that’s when we first met and our friendship started.”
The Beatles were still innocents when he next met them at a gig – or at least John, George and Ringo were. “We went back to the hotel with George and John and Ringo, but no Paul. We sat in the foyer and a man came up and said: ‘Would you sign this for my daughter?’ But people weren’t bothered otherwise and we had tea. Then John said: ‘Do you know any nightclubs? We don’t really know London and we’ve never been clubbing here.’ The week before I had been taken to a place called The Crazy Elephant, and I said: ‘I’m not a member, but we could try it.’ Joe Tilson (a fellow pioneer pop artist) was with us, too, and Joe had a second world war Jeep so we all piled into it and went to The Crazy Elephant. But the doorman said: ‘No, sorry mate, you’re not a member.’ They were playing a Beatles song and John said: ‘Well that’s our song, I’m a Beatle.’ He didn’t believe him. But a voice from around the corner said: ‘Can you let them in? They’re friends of mine.’ We went in, and it was Paul. He was already there with Jane Asher.”
It was an older and more artful group who went into the studio later in the decade to record Sgt Pepper.
“Normally at this point I clam up, but I’ll tell you as best I can,” Blake says. “They had already got a design group called The Fool to do a cover, but the art dealer Robert Fraser talked to Paul and said: “Look, this isn’t a very good cover – it’s psychedelic but there are a lot of other psychedelic things going on – that swirly pink and orange and green stuff – why don’t we use one of the artists in my gallery and make a fine art cover?”
So Blake was commissioned to create a cover that was truly a work of art, yet would be owned in homes all over the world: pop art as popular art.
“The album name was already decided. They were having the uniforms made. They had a vague idea of it being like a brass band, Black Dyke Mills Band or something like that.”
As the Beatles worked on the songs, Blake developed the idea for the cover.
“I did it with my first wife, Jann, and one of us proposed that we could use the idea of a flower clock: in Edinburgh there’s a beautiful one. It slowly evolved into the idea that they had just done a gig, they were in a park and a group of their fans were getting behind them for a photograph. Various ideas came from the Beatles, and others from us. We employed a fairground painter to do the drum.”
To construct the image, they blew up collaged figures to lifesize and posed the band in front, with a real flower arrangement.
“Looking at it from the side it’s a wall, with things fixed to the wall, and then out comes a little platform that they’re standing on, then sloping forwards from the platform is the flowerbed. All the cut outs are made of plywood, then the photographs are stuck to them and hand coloured. I had recently done work for Madame Tussauds, so they lent us their waxworks of the Beatles and Sonny Liston, who I was a great fan of, and Diana Dors. So it’s a mixture of flat cut outs, waxworks and then this platform and the drum.”
On the morning they were to shoot the photograph, everything was perfect. “Clifton Nurseries came in, did the flowerbed, and then the Beatles called and said we can’t do it today – they were finishing off Lovely Rita. So all the flowers went back.” A new day was arranged. “On that day they arrived, put their uniforms on, and Michael Cooper came and took the photograph. Now I would do it on the computer!”
The people in the crowd were partly chosen by the Beatles, but others reflect Blake’s and Haworth’s enthusiasms. Next to the instantly recognisable Bob Dylan is the less familiar face of Simon Rodia, an Italian “outsider artist” who built the wondrous Watts Towers in Los Angeles from wire, shards of glass and other found stuff.
Blake’s admiration for Rodia, ever since he made a pilgrimage to Watts in 1963, is another example of his unaffected, unironic love of popular art. We compare notes of our trips to see the Towers – he went a couple of years before the Watts riots, I went many decades later – but Rodia’s glittering vision is still a joy on the troubled skyline.
The furniture in this room, he says, is a homage to Rodia, with glittering shards of glass embedded into chests and tabletops. This belief in outsider art makes Blake a uniquely generous figure who defies boundaries of taste and cultural value. The kids in his pioneering 1954 pop canvas Children Reading Comics are sincerely enjoying them. This is a million miles from fellow pop artists such as Richard Hamilton or Roy Lichtenstein who looked at the consumer and media age with cool irony, perhaps even contempt.
The New York pop painter Roy Lichtenstein turned comic strips into abstract paintings. But, says Blake: “My theory about Lichtenstein is that he didn’t actually like comic books.
“They were good I think, but they weren’t kind: they weren’t kind to comic books. I think that’s the difference between Lichtenstein and myself – he was making a product and I was a fan.”
This article was amended on 15 June 2022. An earlier version incorrectly said that Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1960; Stevenson was defeated in that year’s Democratic primary by John F Kennedy.
Peter Blake: Under Milk Wood is at Waddington Custot, London, until 23 July.