Sir Peter Blake is often referred to as the ‘Godfather of British Pop Art.’ His work emerged in line with the rise of the Pop Art movement, and he paved the way for many of the great household names that followed. Most famous of his works, however, are the album covers he produced for many iconic British bands, seamlessly bringing together two great cultural signifiers for Britain: British Pop Art and the heyday of British music. He is most famous for co-creating the sleeve design for The Beatles’ album cover Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Born in 1932 in Dartford, Kent, Blake grew up with World War II as a backdrop to his childhood. Initially heading to Gravesend College from 1949 to 1951, his studies were interrupted by two years of National Service. This meant that on arrival at the Royal College of Art in 1953, a 21-year-old Blake was three years older and more experienced than his undergraduate counterparts, carrying with him those childhood memories of war and an awareness of the changing world. He studied alongside the likes of David Hockney, Pauline Boty, Patrick Caulfield, and Derek Boshier.
Blake’s first solo show, in 1960, was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Blake’s artwork, and the work of many of his contemporaries, reflects a collective will to push the turbulent war-ridden past into history and concentrate on building a brighter future in the image of the booming capitalist culture that could be seen in America.
Pop Art sprang almost wholesale from this foment of bright ideals and social change, with Sir Peter Blake as a leading protagonist. Girlie Door, Aquarium, and Empire State are artworks that best reflect Blake’s Pop Art sensibilities. These pieces embody the Pop Art energy, employing found images, collage, industrial branding and logos, and the continuing cross-fertilisation of ideas that occurs between music and the visual arts. His work features abstract versions of real life, pieced together in collage form from idealist images from posters, magazines, and advertisements.
Blake originally trained as a graphic designer, where he developed the skills needed to so powerfully blend traditional artistic methods with the new Pop Culture that was emerging in both the visual and musical world. Blake notably broke down the barriers that determined what constituted ‘art,’ using his talents to paint a positive view of the future, but also to illustrate humanity’s place within the transition from past, through present, to the future.
Many of his paintings showed layers of art and image on a single plane, mimicking the way in which we, as consumers, collect visual things from our media-rich society (i.e. clothing, art, ornaments, colour) to construct our own identity. His works are dense in references to works of literature or art that precede him and come to form the idealistic myths on which our lives are built.
In 1961, after the Young Contemporaries exhibition alongside Hockney and R.B. Kitaj, Blake was first identified as a Pop Artist. Later that year, he won the John Moores junior award for his painting Self-Portrait with Badges, which demonstrated the wholly personal and unique style of Pop Art that Blake had mastered. A later example of this style is Girls with Their Hero (1959), which features Elvis Presley paraphernalia. In 1963, by now a fully-fledged member of the Pop Art movement, Blake was featured in the BBC programme Pop Goes the Easel with Ken Russell.
The collage work that Blake was known for was turned on its head by works such as On the Balcony (1955-1957), created using a mix of popular culture images and fine art styles. Though it initially appears to be a collage, it is, in fact, entirely painted. The piece demonstrates the depth of Blake’s traditional artistic influences and his unrivalled ability to reimagine them: as well as being inspired by Honoré Sharrer’s Workers and Paintings (1943), the boy in the painting is holding Manet’s The Balcony (1869).
In 1975, Blake founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists while living in Bath. It was as a result of his move away from London in 1969 that Blake’s socio-conscious work took a turn towards the traditional. His works from this time show a sense of nostalgia for a past time. His subjects changed from Pop Culture, logos, and celebrity, to English folklore and Shakespearean characters. Throughout the 1970s, Blake put together a set of illustrations to go alongside Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. With his move back to London in 1979, his work returned to its earlier style.
MUSIC AND THE VISUAL ARTS
Though Blake has gained icon status in the world of art more generally, he is one of the few artists to successfully make his mark on a different realm of culture too: that of music. Commissioned to produce many album sleeves, for the likes of The Who, Live Aid, and The Beatles, Blake’s recognisable collage style saturates the back-catalogue of best-loved British records.
The best-known of these album sleeves is that of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which features a collage of iconic cultural figures and objects, set in front of a drum. Since its initial release and success, Blake has reimagined the cover a number of times. In 2006, Blake put together a cover for the Oasis album Stop the Clocks that was based on Sgt. Pepper, but with a more random selection of people and objects, inspired by the cover he put together for Definitely Maybe. In 2005, Blake opened the University of Leeds Sir Peter Blake Music Art Gallery, which features 20 examples of Blake’s album sleeves, including the only public showing of a Sgt. Pepper print. To mark his 80th birthday, Blake put together a revised version of the Sgt. Pepper album cover featuring all his favourite British cultural icons, which was displayed at Boughton House in 2012.
Other examples of Blake’s work includes two The Who album covers, created 38 years apart, the cover for Do They Know It’s Christmas?, Paul Weller’s Stanley Road (1995), and 24 Nights by Eric Clapton (1991), the preliminary drawings from which were released in a scrapbook, and later, Clapton’s I Still Do in 2016.
The long span of Blake’s musical-artistic contribution serves to demonstrate the continued relevance of his work throughout the decades. His work strikes a chord with the universal interest in personal identity and cultural structure that we all share, which ties the worlds of music and art together.
Blake’s work continues to be celebrated at galleries across the country. The Tate has hosted two retrospectives on his work, in 1983 and in 2008. In 2012, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester hosted an exhibition to celebrate his contributions to the world of music.
Blake received a CBE in 1983, and was knighted at Buckingham Palace in 2002 for his contributions to the British art world.