Peter Blake interview: Cut out and keep
IT'S FISH the day that I meet the artist Sir Peter Blake. He has spent the entire day with a scalpel cutting pictures of tiny fish out of an ancient encyclopaedia, with the amazing precision of a man half his age – he's 77 – and the perverse concentration of an artist who has been known to take almost two decades over a single painting.
On a cluttered work table in his West London studio are dozens of tiny fishy delights and piles of brightly coloured butterflies: a new series of collages is underway.
He still works most days. Does that take its toll? "It's things like we're doing now that take the time," he says. "Not work. Last week there wasn't a single clear day when I didn't have a visitor."
He is about to show in Paris, has just completed a new carpet for the Middlesex Guildhall in London, the UK's Supreme Court, and is designing a campaign for Cain's Brewery in Liverpool (the reason, I think, why there are a number of beer bottles in neat rows in his kitchen). He is still in demand, the man who will always be famous for the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. It's a bit of a millstone round his neck – he was a famous artist before the Beatles came along and has remained a famous artist since – but these days he has assured national treasure status for lots of reasons.
He has gone from the young tyro of Pop Art to grand old man of the British establishment and his art and graphic design have been influential for over 50 years. He has none of the grandeur often found in artists of his age or status, though as one of a generation of working class artists who benefited from the seismic social shifts after the war, he says he did rather like getting his knighthood, which he finally received in 2002.
"You get this letter and they ask you, if they were to offer you one would you accept it," Blake says. "You tick yes or no. They swear you to complete secrecy. Then it's about six weeks. The first person I wanted to tell was my mum who was coming up to her 90th birthday. But I knew if I told her she'd instantly talk. It would be all over London in ten minutes. I kept it a secret from her, but all the time thinking, 'Oh god, she could die any day'."
Despite his age and stage, there's no army of assistants to do the artistic donkey work. "I like the solitude, coming here doing what I want to do, listening to the music that I want to listen to. What would they do? Everything I do is part of the process. I sat the whole day today just cutting out little fish. Presumably an assistant could do that quite easily, but its part of the process."
He has a friend who comes in to help keep the studio tidy. And what a studio it is, the product of a lifetime's obsessive collecting of ephemera and memorabilia. A former stables builder's yard, it is packed to the gunwales with stuff. Upstairs there is a collection of exquisitely battered children's chairs, a room clad in Victorian screens like a tiny shrine. The whole thing is presided over by the intimidating presence of the waxwork effigy of the boxer Sonny Liston.
Squeezed in between the collection is work in progress: a shrine to Elvis, his collections of objects known as The Museum Of Black And White. Despite the sheer volume of clutter, the whole thing is surprisingly ordered. There are neat piles where a Damien Hirst invite might sit next to a volume on the pin-up girl Betty Page. In a recent South Bank Show the camera lingered over the studio lovingly as if it were a work of art in itself and he admits now that it is, "a creation, a kind of museum I suppose".
In Edinburgh he will show a new portfolio of prints, The Venice Suite. The first time he went to Venice it was in 1956 on a scholarship. He was travelling with Scottish artist Peter McGinn and they had gone to the city to meet a "a very, very beautiful American girl".
In 2007, he went back there for only the second time in his life, to support his much younger friend Tracey Emin, who was showing at the Venice Biennale. "As it happens it was a total disaster," says Blake. "We arrived at the airport and they had lost our luggage. After three hours of tracing it, we went into Venice with an Italian critic who was meeting us. We went to get on a water taxi and it moved… and I fell about four feet on to my knee. I was in agony the whole time, taking painkillers."
In the prints the city's tourist spots have been transformed by all kinds of surreal mischief and disaster. There are ice and penguins, boat races and parades. "I think what happened is that they started to become a bit surrealist and I started to push it. What wouldn't you see if you visited Venice? You would never see the Aurora Borealis for example and it seemed unlikely that Venice would freeze over."
In contrast, a new series of works set in Paris are all butterflies and charm. "It may well refer to the fact that I was in pain all the time in Venice, there are aeroplanes about to crash and wild animals. They are nightmares whereas the Paris ones are dreams."
Blake went to Gravesend Technical College in 1946, at the age of 14, where he began to study graphic design, and then his precocious talent won him a painting place at the Royal College of Art in 1950, without ever having had a day's formal painting tuition. He won the John Moores painting prize in 1961, with Self-portrait With Badges, a painting of the artist dressed in denims, his lapels covered in pins.
His was a new frankness in art, he was unashamed of being a fan of popular entertainment and his love of rock'n'roll, music hall, boxing, movie stars and wrestling all found their way into his art.
The work that transformed him from a key art world name into a household one is the design for Sgt Pepper's. To make the audience for the Lonely Hearts Club Band, he constructed a vast diorama in the studio. Together with the Beatles he drew up lists of the figures from history, and then Blake made life-size cut outs of them. Chaplin, Marilyn and Bob Dylan rub shoulders with Baudelaire and Brando. He even borrowed wax effigies of the Beatles themselves from Madame Tussaud's.
When I tentatively bring up Sgt Pepper's, he challenges me to ask him a question he hasn't already been asked. In a panic I fluff it and ask him a silly question about the flowers in the foreground.
"They came from a florist in Maida Vale," he says. "They delivered everything a couple of days before. And the day we were going to do the shoot the Beatles called to say they couldn't come, 'We've got to finish this song'. So everything had to go back to the florists and into the fridges." The song, it turned out, was Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.
Although a triumph (he has subsequently designed record covers for everyone from the Who and Brian Wilson to Paul Weller and Oasis) financially it was a disaster. He was paid a flat fee of 200. His gallerist Robert Fraser had signed away the copyright, so the artist received no further income from one of the defining images of the age. Is he bitter? "I've come through it now," he says. "We're talking about it now almost at length. In a recent talk I did I talked about it at length. For a long time I wouldn't do that, I would just say no. We were paid very little and I'm still the tiniest bit bitter that no one thought, 'We've all come up now', no one's ever said, 'Well the record is famous partly because of Pepper's cover; maybe we should have given him a bonus'."
When it came to the Sixties, Blake was already in his thirties and never lived the psychedelic lifestyle. "I didn't take LSD," he says. "I didn't want to be that far from my senses and I knew even then that it was potentially dangerous. With smoking dope, quite quickly it was pretty much a decision I didn't want to do it, I just passed it on and the same during the time when there was so much coke around. I don't regret that now… I'm still alive which is quite important. So many people didn't make it."
Blake was always close to musicians, and the Edinburgh show includes some of the Love Portfolio, his glittering prints of pop stars some of whom are icons and some friends, like the Everly Brothers and – from a different generation entirely – Ian Dury, whom he once taught. "I was very close to him," he says. "He was a difficult man, he taunted people and he teased them… but he was a brilliant man, probably one of the most brilliant lyric writers ever."
There is also a new print of Andy Warhol. Over the years, people kept introducing him to Warhol, they were both former commercial artists and both obsessive collectors, but they were different in outlook. He tells a funny story about being sent by a mutual friend to Warhol's Factory in New York where instead of a kind of cool apotheosis, he just felt plain uncomfortable.
Where Warhol was cool detachment, Blake's work has a very British kind of cheerfulness. "You approach it (art] in an atmosphere, in a mood," he says. "My mood was celebratory; I didn't want to be painting anger."
It's often commented on that his unabashed celebration of the pleasures of childhood might be a result of his own being severely truncated by the war. Blake is open about the fact that his childhood shyness was crippling.
"It had to be to do with the fact that I was evacuated when I was seven. I was away from London, back again and then moved around until I was 14… when I had to do national service at 18, you just weren't allowed to be shy, and I think that I was okay from then on. At the time though it was serious shyness, I couldn't even go into a shop."
He is the kind of quiet man who collects extroverts around him. In the Nineties he was embraced by a new generation of artists who saw him as a kind of godfather: Damien Hirst, Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin among them. Looking back on it now, he says he engineered it. "I kind of ingratiated myself with them… I think one of my motives was that when I was a younger painter if older painters were friendly to you, you remembered it."
He still remembers the artists who were kind to him as a young man, among them Francis Bacon. "I've lived all of those Soho books that have been written, but I'm not mentioned in any of them because I was always standing quietly by watching things."
Peter Blake, Venice is at Edinburgh Printmakers until 29 August. In association with the Paul Stolper Gallery. Peter Blake will give an artist's talk at the venue, 5 August, 4pm, www.edinburgh-festivals.com