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'My place in pure painting will never be where Frank Auerbach is, or Francis Bacon is,’ says Sir Peter Blake over a cuppa in his Chiswick home. Can this be false modesty from one of our most famous and respected artists? With a voice better suited to bedtime stories than provocative pronouncements, Blake, who turned 83 this year, can be a little hard to read. I reply with a meek ‘I don’t think that’s true.’ But the godfather of British pop art is adamant. ‘Frank has been incredibly consistent: it’s either portraits or it’s Camden Town. And some great work has come out of it. Whereas I’ve darted around like a little butterfly. It’s confused people and still confuses them. But that’s good. It’s a path I chose and I don’t regret it.’
Blake’s darting path – beginning in Dartford, as it happens, in 1932 – has been distinguished by its embrace of both ‘pure’ painting and commercial design. He’s been artist in residence at the National Gallery and you’ll see his work at both Tate Britain and Tate Modern, but he’ll always be associated with the most famous album cover of all time. Does he tire of talking about ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’ almost 50 years after he designed it with his then-wife Jann Haworth? ‘I do a bit,’ he says, graciously. ‘All I would add is that it’s not a problem any more. At the time, the fact that I was paid no money was important because I had no money. It was [the cause of] an enormous resentment because everyone else was making so much money.’
Oddly enough, though, as with Auerbach, one thing that’s been consistent throughout Blake’s seven-decade career is portraiture. He’s not been prolific in the genre, and he’s hardly traditional in his approach, preferring to paint from photographs rather than life. Yet a very early portrait of his sister helped him to gain a place at the Royal College of Art in 1950, and one of his most famous paintings is ‘Self-Portrait with Badges’ (1961, currently on show at Tate Britain). Opening this week, his new show breaks down into ‘Portraits’ and ‘People’. ‘Portraits’ includes paintings from life (or photographs) of friends and acquaintances, sometimes as commissions, sometimes done for fun. Described by Blake as ‘anyone with a head’, ‘People’, meanwhile, is full of invented characters – including wrestlers and tattoo-covered folk based on his childhood love of the fairground and circus.
'Peter Blake: Portraits and People' is at Waddington Custot Tue Nov 24 2015-Sat Jan 30 2016