Artist Blake still prolific at 83

Madam X (2015, above), a work on display at the exhibition by Peter Blake (left), is part of his continuing series on wrestlers.
Madam X a work on display at the exhibition by Peter Blake (above), is part of his continuing series on wrestlers.PHOTO: SIR PETER BLAKE'S FACEBOOK

Peter Blake has a new show and is preparing to illustrate The Great Gatsby

LONDON • At an age when many artists have seen their creative output slow down, Peter Blake says he has never felt less constrained - and, at 83, he considers himself fortunate to have good eyesight and a steady hand.

The artist, who has inspired a thousand parlour games with his cover collage for the 1967 Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, has just opened a show at the Waddington Custot Galleries here. About half of the 78 works in it were produced this year.

"What it means is, you can go daft, you can do anything," he said in an interview in his light-filled London living room. "So I gave myself carte blanche to be in my late period and be a slightly eccentric old man."

His eccentricities have been on display his entire career.

Madam X (2015, above) a work on display at the exhibition by Peter Blake, is part of his continuing series on wrestlers. PETER BLAKE: PORTRAITS AND PEOPLE FACEBOOK

What it means is, you can go daft, you can do anything. So I gave myself carte blanche to be in my late period and be a slightly eccentric old man.

BRITISH ARTIST PETER BLAKE, who just opened a show at the Waddington Custot Galleries

The Waddington show, Peter Blake: Portraits And People, which runs through Jan 30, revisits his favourite subjects: professional wrestlers, circus performers - people "outside the norm", he said - and Elvis Presley, his lifelong idol.

The gallery's central space is filled with oil paintings and watercolours derived from found images. A series of tattooed figures is based on 19th-century French prisoner photographs; another series depicts mostly imaginary wrestlers and entertainers. The teary, red- nosed Krankie The Klown riffs on a photograph of Robert De Niro. Cowboy Jake Rodeo has the eyes of Brad Pitt and the nose of rugby player Mike Tindall.

"He's got an extraordinary painterly touch," said Martin Gayford, a British critic and author who has followed Blake's career. Because of his subject matter, Blake has been branded a Pop artist, but Gayford said that label had never really suited him.

"His roots come out of English folk art more than out of Pop, as it's understood in terms of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein."

Blake, who received a knighthood in 2002, is part of a generation of British artists in their 70s and 80s who are still producing and showing works. Yet his name recognition and prices have lagged behind contemporaries such as David Hockney, 78, who will have a portrait show opening at the Royal Academy of Arts in July.

Mr Christoph Grunenberg, a former director of Tate Liverpool and the curator of a 2007 Blake retrospective there, said the "quaint, eccentric nature" of Blake's work was out of step with today's art-world tastes. He is a "quintessentially British artist", Mr Grunenberg said. "He always harks back to some nostalgic vision of Britain."

Mr Grunenberg, now director of the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany, noted that Blake had also continued to make relatively small works in traditional media, even as artists such as Hockney had produced large-scale pieces and experimented with new technologies. An electrician's son from Kent, in south-east England, Blake went straight to art school after World War II and began depicting his passions, including the theatre and rock 'n' roll, considered somewhat subversive at the time.

An early work, Self-Portrait With Badges, from 1961, now at Tate Britain, shows Blake wearing jeans and a denim jacket covered with badges and holding a magazine titled Elvis. Like much of his art, it is autobiographical: a frank representation of his young self and his obsession with popular culture.

In the early 1960s, he met and became friends with Paul McCartney, and through the intercession of an astute art dealer, Blake received the commission to design the cover for Sgt. Pepper. Few of his works since then have lodged themselves in the popular consciousness.

Blake said he found that "quite often the work I was doing at any one time wasn't fashionable at that time".

He said he had made matters worse by boycotting New York for four decades - having received nasty reviews in a 1962 exhibition there - and by refusing to sell to Charles Saatchi, the British art world's long-time kingmaker, whom he viewed as a dealer, not a collector.

"A shot in each foot," he said of those career moves, adding that he regretted neither.

The highest price paid for a Blake work at auction was in June when Boys With New Ties, an oil painting from around 1955, sold at Christie's for £662,500 (S$1.3 million). A mixed-media shrine to Elvis is the most expensive work in the Waddington show, at £400,000.

"I've never aimed to be very rich," Blake said. "I've never done it for money." He described himself as "comfortable now", but not rich in the terms of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.

These days, he is busy "clearing the desk", he said, adding: "There's still a group of ambitions that I'm now trying to tick off."

Those include illustrating Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, his favourite book, he said.

He is also making additional illustrations of the Dylan Thomas drama Under Milk Wood, for which he produced 110 works on paper, which were published in a book in 2013.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Artist Blake still prolific at 83'. Print Edition | Subscribe