Andrew Lambirth talks to Sir Peter Blake about his forthcoming Tate retrospective
Sir Peter Blake is much in demand. A popular figure since he rose to fame with his unforgettable design for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album (1967), he has long been a spokesman for his generation and for the arts. His knighthood in 2002 brought a whole host of new requests and obligations, much of it figurehead stuff: his name on lists of patrons, or as the chairman of selection committees. To take these things seriously is time-consuming, and Blake has to be rigorous about preserving his hours in the studio, where typically he is busy on a number of projects at once. On the eve of a retrospective of his paintings at Tate Liverpool (29 June–23 September) I visited him in his west London studio, which is a treasure-house of objects and art. Blake is an inveterate collector, and the studio is partly a museum or cabinet of curiosities, as well as being the place where he paints, draws, makes collages and assembles his box constructions and sculptures.
I asked him if he has a strong sense of public responsibility. ‘I’ve always felt that I wanted to give things back to art because it gave to me.’ Blake is known for his readiness to espouse a good cause or give freely of his time. In private life, he is equally generous, a loyal friend and supporter. The public figure and the private dovetail in terms of promoting a particular ethos: not quite Pop Art, though it encompasses some of Pop’s characteristics and coincidentally includes a number of celebrated pop musicians including Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, and not quite a simple cult of celebrity, though Blake has always enjoyed the company of the show-biz famous. His world is unique: part archaising, with an obsessive interest in past art and artefacts, and part utterly contemporary. ‘I’m friendly, as you know, with most of the so-called YBAs, simply because when I was a young artist people were nice to me. They don’t need encouragement or me to like them.’ But he does, and he not only drinks with Tracey and Damien, but he puts them into the cast of characters which populate his paintings, along with Duchamp, Picasso and Cheetah the chimp.
The forthcoming retrospective was initially planned as a show of what Blake calls ‘large-ish key paintings’, but it soon outstripped those modest beginnings, and became more wide-ranging, providing a detailed survey of Blake’s career as a painter. When he was the third associate artist of the National Gallery (1994–6), and given a show there at the end of his residency, Blake chose to regard this as an impossible act to follow, and announced his retirement in 1996 at the age of 64. (Spot the Beatles reference.) Since then, his exhibitions have been what he terms a succession of ‘encores’, though the Liverpool show is a pretty substantial one. And there’s a new twist. ‘The new concept is that I’m into my Late Period as well,’ says Blake. ‘I’m having a stencil made saying “Late Period” and I’m taking advantage of the fact that I’m aware I’m in my Late Period.’ As he points out, artists usually have to be dead before a late period is recognised. ‘I’m hoping not to be too infirm but to take advantage of the fact that I’m 75 in June. Use it to finish things, perhaps, but also to do things that might not be characteristic. The first group of Late Period pictures are called “Costume Life” and there’ll be six of those, of nude young women but wearing costume clothes. They’re also a direct homage to Klimt — I like to copy directly some of his backgrounds, as though I’m painting my girls in his studio.’ What are the characteristics of this new period? ‘I hope stylistically looser and faster and maybe thicker, but whenever I try that it ends up pretty much the same. It always seems to tighten up, but it may well be different. I may be prepared to put something in that isn’t in the category of Unfinished or Work in Progress, but is lighter and slighter than some of the earlier work, but finished.’ Do the same themes still engage him? ‘Most of the themes do ebb away and come back. I might paint a group of wrestlers and then not paint any for five years, but it doesn’t mean I won’t for ever. Elvis is on hold at the moment. I’m still collecting Elvis material and some of the Elvis pictures are halfway through. At this very moment he isn’t a major subject.’ Does he still collect? ‘I’m not collecting in a covetous way any more. Collecting used to be about getting to the Caledonian Market at 5 o’clock to get something before a fellow-collector might get it. It’s not like that any more. Part of my statement about retirement was that I’d given up competitiveness. The main collecting now is to do with work. I’m doing a lot of work at the moment around the subject of the alphabet so I’m collecting existing alphabets and making new ones. Also I’m doing a series called ‘Museums of Black and White’. There was a wonderful antique shop just round the corner which has now closed. I would go once a week. I bought quite a lot of Outsider art from them. I’m still doing that series ‘Memories of Place’, so certainly if I go somewhere like Hastings I’d be collecting for that. I’m also doing a series of prints with Brad Faine of Coriander Studios called “Found Art”, where I take a found object and scan it on the computer and print it out inkjet.’ Recently Blake has been called a Conceptual artist. How does he feel about that? ‘I wouldn’t want to be categorised as just one thing — I don’t mind categories, but I like lots of categories. My work is usually about diversity.’ In his time, he’s been identified as a proto-Pop artist, a Pop artist and a Ruralist, and he certainly doesn’t disown any of those labels entirely, any more than he would his early work. And looking at him, you can see why he might like the idea of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a mutually supportive exhibiting society with echoes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — Blake looks a little like a latterday Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with his beard and dark suit.
Is he doing any portraits these days? Certainly there will be none in the Liverpool exhibition, but that’s because he’s hoping to show them all together elsewhere. ‘At the moment I’m painting Chris Frayling for the [Royal] College, and an ongoing pair of pictures of Paul and Pauline Smith. I’m being drawn back to the idea of sitting in front of somebody and painting them. The last time I did that was with Helen Mirren, 20 years ago, and I haven’t done it since. I’d love to paint Kate Moss ... for her to come and sit quietly for her portrait.’ The last room at Tate Liverpool will show the five pictures in Blake’s recent ‘Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour’ series, a cross between a road movie and the art world’s House of Horrors. Then, just when you thought it was all over, there’ll be a further encore within the show, a postscript, an idea derived from Monty Python, which always had something else happening after The End: the really last room. ‘That’s about the future, so I’m going to put in some big pieces which are really very unfinished. Clearly works in progress.’ Quite an achievement for someone who’s retired.