Dubbed the godfather of Pop Art, Sir Peter Blake has been making waves in the British art scene since the late 1950s. Feted & prolific, Blake has become something of a national treasure. So what should a potential collector consider when it comes to the artist? And what is the investement potential of his artwork?
With work featured in MoMA, the Tate and the National Museum of Cardiff, Blake is best known for his popular culture-infused collages and uniquely fantastical paintings, and was the third British painter ever to be knighted for his invaluable contribution to contemporary art.
Born in Dartford, Kent in 1932, Blake attended the Royal College of Art, where he first began producing the proto-pop style paintings later shown in the infamous Young Contemporaries exhibition of 1961, alongside David Hockney and R. B. Kitaj. Starring with Pauline Boty in Ken Russell’s film Pop Goes the Easel the following year, Blake’s presence in the Pop Art scene continued to grow throughout the decade—with his fame cemented following his 1967 collaboration with Paul McCartney and then-wife Jann Haworth on the cover art for the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
From Pop to Figurative art, and eventually Ruralism, this article will take a look at some of the major themes of Peter Blake’s illustrious career, as well as providing investment advice, analysis & comparison with other major artists.
Peter Blake’s work is particularly unique for its deft juxtaposition of the new with the old—his paintings pepper pop culture references into scenes clearly inspired by English folk art. “You simply cannot make art without having that history of art behind you,” the artist explained. “I think if you asked any artist they would always say they had learned from previous art. Perhaps I show that more than most”.
Blake’s earliest work played with the idealism of American culture, as advertised in the late 1950s, as well as the swinging British music scene. His pieces mimic collage— the most famous of which, On The Balcony, features a meticulously painted reproduction of Manet’s The Balcony, a cover of LIFE magazine, and a panoramic portrait of the royal family.
References to foundational art of the past continue beyond Blake’s most famous Pop Art paintings and collages, however. Leaving London in the late 1960s for a small town just outside of Bath, Blake turned to Ruralism—a movement that looked to a certain kind of English painting of the past for inspiration. “Our aims,” Blake commented, “are to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic.” Work from this period of his life was filled with literary references—including, most famously, his illustration of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
Blake eventually returned to London, and his Pop Art roots. He continued designing album artwork, painting celebrity portraits, and even, in 2015, decorating a ferry.
Here’s a brief look at some of the major themes throughout Blake’s prolific career.
Following his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1956, Sir Peter Blake was awarded a Leverhulme scholarship, which funded his travels through Europe. It was this time abroad that first sparked Blake’s love for pop culture and zeitgeist icons. Returning to the UK, his work increasingly alluded to celebrity culture, merging ads, comic book graphics, famous figures, and the mass-produced mundane into carefully painted collage-like artworks.
On The Balcony (1955-57) is one of his most famous works of this genre, as well as Self-Portrait with Badges (1961)—an image of the artist as a young man, decked out in a full denim outfit, jacket adorned with colourful badges. The badges themselves—of the American flag, unsuccessful Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and Pepsi, among others—pledge Blake’s cultural allegiance to America, as well as his converse, jean jacket, and proudly displayed Elvis Presley magazine. The painting’s backdrop, however—a drab garden fence and dingy shrubbery—situates the figure squarely back in Britain, and gestures to its artistic traditions of homely portraiture and landscape.
Beach Boys (1964), and Doktur K. Tortur (1965) are two more examples of Blake’s obsession with pop culture. The former, a copy of a press photo of the popular Californian band The Beach Boys, pictures the bandmates leaning casually against their cars, which are left drawn in representational lines, save the prominent California licence plate. Below the image, the band name is etched in graphic blue, orange, red, and white block lettering.
Doktor K. Tortur veers from Americana, instead highlighting the wrestling matches Blake attended in his childhood. One of a series, the work—done in cryla and collage on hardboard—positions the naked upper torso of real-life wrestler Doktor K. Tortur against a bright archway frame, with found art positioned above and below the portrait. Wrestlers provided a lasting motif for Blake, who repeatedly returned to them throughout his career.
Whilst making waves within the art world with his Contemporary collages and mixed media projects, it was Blake’s collaboration with The Beatles on their monumental album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that rocketed him to widespread public recognition. The artwork—produced alongside fellow Pop artist and then-wife Jann Haworth—has since become the band’s most iconic cover image, as well as Blake’s best-known work. Featuring the four band members posed in front of a patchwork tableau of iconic historical and popular figures, the image drew on Blake’s love of cultural references, bright colour, and collaging technique.
Blake was subsequently commissioned to create sleeves for the Band Aid single ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, Paul Weller’s Stanley Road, and The Who’s Face Dances. In 2012, as he approached his 80th birthday, Blake took it upon himself to recreate the Sgt. Pepper album image, replacing the crowd with the British cultural icons he himself most admires. The updated image was shown at fashion designer Wayne Hemingway’s Vintage festival later that summer.
Blake’s original passion for the world of Pop Art had waned by the late 1960s, which saw him flee the bustle and noisy scene of London for the peace of the English countryside. Settling near Bath with Haworth and their young daughter, Blake veered from his previous work, depicting scenes based on old English folklore, or great works of British literature. The couple founded the ‘Brotherhood of Ruralists’ in 1975, a group of British artists rebelling against the scholarly nature of contemporary art who aimed instead to continue the tradition of a certain type of English painting, drawing inspiration from sources ranging from Samuel Palmer to Elgar, to the sport of cricket.
Blake began his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in the early 1970s—retelling the classic story through dark, detailed and slightly disturbing watercolour images of Alice’s journey through Wonderland.
These and other depictions of a quieter and more conservative Victorian past, interspersed with fantastical and storybook imagery, provide further testament to Blake’s continual nodding to moments of art history past.
In his suites inspired by the romantic European cities of Paris, London and Venice, Blake uses his signature collaging technique to create humorously odd scenes of iconic landmarks. In Paris—Women With Their Pets, Blake reimagines the Arc de Triomphe as a popular walking spot for well-dressed ladies and their very wild animals. Beneath a dramatic sunset, photographs of early 1900s women are interspersed with giraffes, bears and monkeys, often led on leashes, or perched on well-coiffed heads.
In Blake’s Venice Suite, traditional images of Venice are juxtaposed with cut-out photographs, children’s books, and twee postcards to transform the historic city into a surreal and fairytale-like world. Venice Suite—Iceberg II sees an iceberg mysteriously planted in the middle of a canal, complete with a beached cruise liner and a gaggle of playing children. In Altercation, a similar crowd of disparate black and white cut-outs (including some chickens) squabble outside Saint Mark’s Basilica.
Found art has been a consistent theme throughout Blake’s career—his pieces are often dotted with crumpled matchboxes, plastic figurines or magazine advertisements. Blake’s use of these often mundane, cast-away objects alludes to one of the core tenets of Pop Art, the idea that even the most everyday item can become fine art. Unlike the most famous Pop artist of all, Andy Warhol, who primarily depicted major commercial brands, Blake focuses on society’s refuse.
Winston, one such piece from his Found Art series, features a well-worn packet of Winston cigarettes, enlarged into a full size print. Another piece, Buttons, shows a sheaf of extra black buttons, ‘Nouveautés de Paris’ emblazoned at the top. Other pieces show kitsch postcards, children’s magazines, and decks of cards.
Vibrant, colour-blocked shapes like the heart, star, target and rainbow recur throughout Blake’s work, sometimes in the background of collaged found objects or painted portraits, or as images in their own right.
The First Real Target (1961) was one of Blake’s first incorporations of the target motif into his artwork, mirroring a real archery target in red, electric blue, black and white. Letters taken from Victorian board games spell out THE FIRST REAL TARGET? above, mirroring American artist Jasper Johns’ ‘Target Paintings’.
Newer pieces, such as I Love Recycling, repeat these well-worn motifs, instead spelling out I LOVE RECYCLING in black block lettering. I Love Vintage features exactly the same motif and colours, only in slightly less bright—or purposely aged—hues, and with a different message.
Blake’s obsession with celebrity icons did not end with his retreat into Ruralism. Upon his return to his West London studio, Blake continued to produce portraits of famous actors, musicians, and models.
Kim Novak, a print based on one of his previous works from the 1960s, features a repeated still of Novak from her popular film Phfft! above a graphic blue and yellow stripe design. Marilyn, although part of Blake’s 2008 Replay series, is similarly reminiscent of his early style—using a relatively unfamiliar image of the very young, not-yet peroxide blond actress, Blake duplicates it against a bright blue, red and yellow pattern beneath.
Blake’s 2010 Star Series memorialised celebrities of a more recent generation—featuring idols such as The Beatles, Elvis and even Kate Moss, collaged against a background of white birch, and above a delicate white star bearing their name.
Blake was obsessed with the spectacle of the circus, creating his first circus-themed collage in 1949, and frequently using its imagery in his artwork ever since.
Circus, one image from his Classroom Suite collection—interpretations of popular leisure activities—depicts a circle of horses of various sizes led around a glowing yellow ring, as a crowd of black and white spectators looks on. The piece is collaged from vintage images, the onlookers, upon closer inspection, made up of many familiar faces—Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar included.
Another set of three prints is clearly inspired by Lothar Meggendorfer’s International Circus—a pop-up book from the late 1800s. Filled with weird and wacky characters taken from Blake’s extensive ephemera collection, two panels of crowds sandwich a centre stage circus act, complete with tattooed men, bearded ladies and a rearing horse.
Portraits have been a major facet of Blake’s repertoire since his earliest years as an artist—whether self-portraiture, celebrity images, or paintings of imagined characters.
Blake’s Tattooed People and Wrestlers collections combine both his love for this style, and his obsession with characters who exist at the fringe of society. A group of heavily inked men and women feature in the former collection, painted in intricate watercolours against a black background.
In the latter collection, Blake’s long-time interest in wrestling is indulged—he often claims that if not for his art, he would’ve tried his luck as a wrestler. Created for his 2015 collection, Portraits and People, Blake’s portraits of wrestlers, staring directly at the viewer with their ring name and nationality printed neatly below, combines his three favourite themes: watercolours, typography and flag imagery.
To give the illusion of renown, features from prominent celebrity faces are painted into each wrestler’s face—hopefully to spark some form of recognition in the viewer. Cowboy Jake Rodeo, for example, has the eyes of Brad Pitt and nose of Mike Tindall, whilst Krankie the Klown closely resembles Robert De Niro.
Blake’s interest in typography began during his time studying art at Gravesend Technical College, where he learnt the traditional crafts of typesetting, hand lettering, and the Roman letter. This fascination with such technical arts is evident in his many alphabet-inspired works.
His Dazzle Alphabet Series—each featuring a letter of the alphabet, printed in warm hues and graphic shapes—is one such example, inspired both by his early work, and his more recent research into the ‘dazzle effect’ utilised by the military to camouflage vessels during WWI.
Another series, Alphabet: The Letter [blank], features a large, thickly printed black letter atop a bed of Victorian ephemera starting with the chosen letter. In Alphabet: The Letter D, for example, the ‘D’ in question is circled by dogs, dromedaries, donkeys and ducks.
[Blank] is For [Blank] is less directly alphabet centred, but still plays on the theme—for each letter, a photograph from the early 20th century depicts an aptly titled word or character, contrasted in bold, Pop Art colours. L is For Love and G is For Girl both draw on Blake’s classic themes of nostalgia and childhood innocence in their imagery.
In a retail gallery setting, Peter Blake prints typically tend to sell for between £500 and £10,0000, with larger prints in smaller edition sizes priced at the top of that range. Rarer works or sets can be priced higher.
Some works cost considerably less—pieces from Blake’s Tattooed People collection, at just 21cm x 28.4cm and in edition sizes of 150, can be found for £300.
At auction, Blake’s original paintings and pieces have sold for tens of thousands of pounds, and often well over their estimates. His prints, however, very rarely tend to gain in value on the secondary market. Over the last five years at auction, 32% of the Peter Blake prints & multiples offered have failed to sell.
Sir Peter Blake is represented worldwide by London-based gallery Waddington Custot, and some original works can be bought from them directly.
Other galleries that sell Peter Blake pieces include:
Works by Blake can also be found at auction houses Phillips and Christie's, as well as on Ebay. As always, exercise caution when buying from sites such as Ebay - if it looks too good to be true it most likely is. MyArtBroker would always advocate buying from a reputable source & only works with clear provenance. A thriving Ebay market is testament to the limited success the prints have achieved via auction.
Jinty Stephenson, a dress designer three years below Sir Peter Blake at art school, made headlines in 2015, when she put an original Blake art work up for auction. She had spotted the piece, Boys with New Ties, at his studio at the time, eventually purchasing it from him for £30—a sum she had to pay in £3 instalments.
Almost 60 years later, the piece sold at Christie’s for £662,500.
Such a tale of exponential dividends—whilst inspiring—is not, however, the norm. Blake’s pieces may do well at auction, but they do not consistently overpass their estimates, and certainly not by such a margin. Despite his early prominence on the Pop Art scene, Blake has never enjoyed the fame of contemporaries like Hockney or Warhol, nor more recent artists like Koons and Hirst.
Unlike the former, Blake rarely diverges from his relatively small-scale works and traditional mediums; his style, whilst spanning a range of movements, has consistently harkened back to the traditions of English folk art. “Quite often,” Blake himself has commented, “the work I was doing at any one time wasn’t fashionable at that time”.
Blake’s relative fame and prowess within the Pop Art scene, therefore, does not necessarily ensure purchasing his work will prove the best investment.
Many of Blake’s newest print releases are actually reworked pieces from the 1960s and 70s—changed minutely and produced in large edition sizes. On websites such as Ebay, pieces can be found for far below their current asking price in commercial galleries. The limited edition silkscreen print Q is For Quarters, for example, is listed on Enter Gallery for £2,750 unframed. The same print, framed, recently sold on Ebay for £995. Alphabet: Letter X, similarly, is priced at £1,200 on Enter Gallery, yet sold for just £450 on Ebay.
At auction over the last five years (mid-2017 - mid-2022) the average hammer price for a Peter Blake print stands at £1122. How has that changed over time? In 2017 the average hammer was £2358. 2022 to-date that figure stands at £1834.
Peter Blake prints bought at full price, therefore, are yet to be making big returns when resold—largely because of the high volume of prints still being produced by the artist each year.
For the retail price of a Peter Blake there are numerous works by artists such as Damien Hirst, Invader, Julian Opie & David Hockney to name but a few, that can be had on the secondary market. These are established artists with significant auction history behind them and track records of appreciation in value. For example, the average return on a Damien Hirst print in the last 5 years stands at 57.6% & David Hockney averages a return of 131.8% over that same period (mid-2017 to mid-2022).
Of course, if you enjoy Sir Peter Blake’s work, purchasing his artwork will always be a worthwhile acquisition, regardless of the investment potential. As such, the secondary market offers a great opportunity to acquire his work at significantly less than retail prices.
If you own a Peter Blake print & are looking to sell, we can help you find the right channel to maximise your potential return.
*Data in this report is taken from public auction records.