The 29-year-old Peter Blake looks sober enough, standing erect in a suburban English garden and gazing out at us with solemn concentration. But “Self-Portrait with Badges” (1961) is also an image of a determined rebel, proudly wearing turned-up Levi jeans and baseball boots and flaunting his obsessive love of pop by clutching an Elvis fanzine. As for the artist’s groovy denim jacket, it is festooned with badges celebrating all kinds of pop heroes, as well as the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
Growing up in Gravesend, on the Thames estuary, the teenage Blake experienced an early epiphany when he started listening to his father’s collection of swing records. An equally fervent love of jazz followed soon afterwards, when he joined the Rhythm Club in nearby Dartford (the Kent town where a certain Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were growing up). And by the time he studied at the Royal College of Art in London, from 1953 to 1956, Blake was determined to paint autobiographical images directly reflecting the fact that “I was into wrestling, sport, fairgrounds, music hall and jazz.”
The pop artist’s love affair with pop music is now explored in a hugely enjoyable exhibition at Pallant House Gallery. In the corner of the first room stands a vintage 1962 jukebox, a Rock-Ola Princess; visitors are invited to divert themselves with records such as Brian Hyland’s 1960 homage to the girl who wore an “itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini”.
But the show starts as early as 1950, when Blake – who has just turned 80 – drew himself in ink and gouache as a “Boy with New Tie”. Staring at the postwar world through trendy sunglasses, he sports an erotic tie adorned with an image of “Miss CWS” (Co-operative Wholesale Society). The picture-within-a-picture occurs again and again. A decade later, Blake painted a picture of a girl fondly clutching a portrait of another demi-god, the Rat Pack singer Sammy Davis Jr. After Blake took it to a hotel where Davis was staying, and left it with the receptionist as a gift for his hero, he never heard anything – the painting disappeared completely. But another 1960 “Portrait of Sammy Davis Junior” has survived, and is included in this exhibition. It shows a fan brandishing two monochrome photos of the singer on a pin-board.
Blake’s fascination with collage, which reflects the influence of the German artist Kurt Schwitters, comes to the fore in a large work called “Got a Girl” (1960-61). The title is taken from a hit record by The Four Preps; Blake actually collaged the vinyl disc to the upper left corner of this brash, heraldic image. But the song expresses the sadness of a frustrated boy who realises that, when he kisses his girlfriend, she is dreaming of pop heroes such as Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson and the inescapable Elvis, all of whom are ranged in a triumphant row of publicity shots along the top of the picture. Below is a bold red, white and blue zig-zag painted in enamel, a reflection both of Blake’s fascination with fairground sign painting and of his awareness of hard-edged abstraction in the US, a country he longed to visit.
In 1963 Blake travelled to California with Jann Haworth, the American artist who had become his wife. Driving along Venice Beach in a cool Corvette Stingray, he heard The Beach Boys, and the following year made a screenprint based on the front cover of one of the group’s albums. With hindsight, we can see that this interest in covers must have helped to prepare Blake for the momentous task of designing the sleeve for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – perhaps Blake’s most famous image.
The year was 1967, and The Beatles had already commissioned a cover for their album from a Dutch design collective called The Fool. But the art dealer Robert Fraser urged his friend Paul McCartney to commission Blake instead. His design was a tour de force, blending waxwork figures and life-sized photographic cut-outs of more than 70 iconic figures. Selected by Fraser and The Beatles as well as Blake and Haworth, they range from James Dean, Marlene Dietrich and Marlon Brando to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Indian gurus admired by George Harrison. The entire set was assembled in the studio of the photographer Michael Cooper, and the total cost amounted to a hefty £2,868 5s 3d. It was then the most expensive album cover ever made, and yet Blake received a fee of only £200, without royalties.
Perhaps that is why his painting of “The 1962 Beatles”, which he finally completed in 1968 after a five-year gestation, looks strangely subdued. Based on a photograph of the group published after they returned from an early residency in Hamburg, it portrays them with neat haircuts, collars and ties. Only George is grinning, and even his face remains oddly blurred. John, Paul and Ringo all look tense and muted. The white boxes above their heads were intended by Blake to contain their autographs. But the boxes were never signed and remain empty, adding to the distinct air of unease in this haunting image.
Until October 7, www.pallant.org.uk