There is a tall, forbidding figure tucked inside the entrance of Peter Blake’s west London studio. It’s a waxwork model of Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxer whose fights with Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s made him one of that decade’s most controversial sporting celebrities. The look on his face is distant, and a little scary. It is impossible not to think of him as a bouncer, guarding the treasure trove of artistic wonders that lie behind him. To anyone familiar with the iconography of popular music, he is also a recognisable figure. The model of Liston is present in Blake’s most renowned work, and one of the most famous pop images in history, standing solemnly among the motley collection of celebrities on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
For many people, Blake’s inspired collage summed up the frenetic times. Its improbable placings of modern history’s cultural icons – Lenny Bruce next to Karlheinz Stockhausen; Fred Astaire rubbed up against Edgar Allan Poe – could not help but make you smile. It was a playful fantasy, a light-touched piece of artistic mischief that could not hide its disregard for the pomposity of postwar “adult” Britain. Very 1960s; very Peter Blake.
Blake today does not much care to talk about Sgt. Pepper, not necessarily because of his feelings towards the meagre reward he received for his art work (said to be about £200) but because he finds it a little boring and tires of strangers walking up to him, asking him to sign half-a-dozen copies, and instantly putting them on eBay. But the spirit of that irreverent cover is still vividly alive in the artist.
His output is, for a man just turned 80, prodigious, and he relishes the chance to indulge in further artistic jinks. On an impromptu tour of the studio, he points to a smooth, hollowed piece of stone that he found while walking, which he wants to put into a forthcoming show, and which happens to be reminiscent of the work of one of Britain’s greatest sculptors. “Yes, it looks like a Henry Moore,” confesses Blake flatly. “The principle is that so many people talk about works of art that look like nature. So this is a piece of nature that looks like a work of art.”
It is the kind of subtle inversion of artistic cliché that characterises Blake’s best work and keeps him interested in an art scene that is full of admirers and acolytes (he is proud to be regarded as the “godfather” of the fast-maturing Young British Artist movement). The faux-Henry Moore is part of a new show, “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, which opens at the Waddington Custot Galleries next month. The title comes from the children’s game, and there is much that is childlike in the show: bizarre landscapes are peopled by superheroes, acrobats, animals, cuddly toys.
Characters familiar from Blake’s previous work, almost like members of some metaphysical extended family, are present in one of the exhibition’s central pieces, “A Parade for Saul Steinberg”. The tribute to The New Yorker’s worldly cartoonist is intended, says Blake, to make people smile. He shuffles around the unfinished sculpture (he is limping, in need of a total knee replacement, he says) pointing out some of the references. “I started it some time ago. I was such a fan of Steinberg. The buildings are supposed to look like his drawings of buildings, and the people are all people he might have drawn. He loved drawing parades.” There is a group of wrestlers, members of the DC Comics’ superhero group, the Justice League of America, Popeye, a group of Snow Whites “and a whole lot of dwarves”. He talks tenderly of his characters, their evident independence adding to the work’s surrealism: “There are the Tetley tea folk, Noddy, Einstein, Leonardo. And there is Rupert Bear, who is breaking away from his friends …”
The combination of old and new is not unusual: Blake’s studio is full of half-finished works, which he will suddenly dig out after many years and begin to work on again. He explains the evolution of a large painting, “Once Upon a Time”, which started life in 1964 as part of a triptych to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The work, a portrait of the Earl of Essex driving out peasants from Ireland, was put aside after an argument over the terms of its display in an exhibition. Nearly half a century later, Blake started to rework it. “I turned the peasants into Robin Hood and his Merry Men,” he says, as if it were the most natural transformation in the world. “Then I started to add elements from another series of paintings, which figured unforgivably sentimental things: unicorns, fairies, rainbows.” The unfinished work has already appeared in a Tate Liverpool exhibition, and will probably appear in the new show as a “work in progress”. It is as if he is treating his own past work as a “found object”, I say to him. “Absolutely.” He appears not concerned in the slightest to complete the piece. He is happy, he says, to allow question marks to remain over the future of his body of work.
“The scenario is, I am 80, I don’t have cancer or anything, but I am not that well. There are whole series of works that I would like shown – the alphabet works, portraits – but they may well have to be shown posthumously. It’s not a macabre thing. I hope I will be there, and we can sort them out. But I may not be, and it is nice to think that they will still go on.”
It was early in his career, well before The Beatles, that Blake became absorbed in British popular culture, and his Pop art was imbued with very British traits: where Andy Warhol’s works were cool and laconic, there was a gentler, more humanistic side to Blake’s oddball assortments.
That affection can still be found in a selection of new collages depicting London life. They are part of an ongoing portfolio – earlier editions focused on Venice, Paris, New York and Oslo – and depict the city’s messy vibrancy through a series of fantastical images: an Abbey Road zebra crossing celebrating London’s multicultural population (and lacking any Beatles); Piccadilly Circus buzzing with flying superheroes. “These are relatively positive and cheerful,” he says. “The next ones will be in the USA.”
I ask about the sources for his bizarre characters. “I have always had this great adoration of people who are different, and I have always celebrated them. A lot of these [he points to some portraits of elderly men in one of the collages] come from this big edition of the Larousse dictionary, which I bought at the first auction I ever went to, in Bath in the early 1970s. One day I looked at them, and I had this library of engraved images that were of no intrinsic value whatsoever, so I began to cut them up.” Today, of course, he uses the internet. “It’s another tool,” says Blake. “I hardly use it, but I have to admit to it.” We approach the busy centre of the studio. “This is the core of the collection,” he says, “although anything to do with circuses is in Vienna for an exhibition there. Like Tom Thumb’s boots.” He points to a battered pair of old shoes. “They are Max Miller’s. And there is his stick. Ian Dury’s rhythm stick is in Chichester at the moment. And this,” he picks up a strangely shaped hat, “belonged to Douglas Fairbanks, from when he played Robin Hood [in the silent movie], in 1922.”
Upstairs we sit in a quiet, sombre room with a manual typewriter. “It is where I will write my memoirs,” he says, in a tone of voice that advises you not to hold your breath. I say it is remarkable he has managed to retain the humour and eclecticism in his work that might have been battered out of him by a lifetime of art world po-facedness.
“Contemporary art has always been so serious, but I have managed to keep the playful, surrealist thing going,” he replies. “Professionally it has been a disadvantage, because I have never been taken seriously. The Tate has never taken me seriously. Nick [Serota, Tate’s director] has no idea what I am about. He doesn’t understand me in the least, I think it is fair to say. I have never been shown in Tate Modern and when they made that family tree of art [on a wall at Tate Modern] I was left off. I didn’t exist in 20th-century art. After a couple of years this was pointed out, and they put me up. And they haven’t bought anything for 20 years. But I mustn’t rant.”
In truth, he isn’t ranting, nor do those words sound as bitter as they may appear in print. In any case, he believes his time has come round again. “It is why they always link me with the YBAs.” He is still enmeshed in popular culture. “Last week I did the cover for the new Madness album. They have had a renaissance since the Jubilee concert, haven’t they? They played at my 80th birthday party.” It’s a cool line.
As we make our way downstairs, I ask him about the strangest item in the studio – no little accolade – a delicately embroidered scene of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. “I was having my flat decorated and the decorator said his neighbour was quite an artist. So I went to visit him. He was a former rear gunner in the RAF, he had been shot down and burnt, and as therapy he had been taught embroidery. He started with the Queen, some ballet dancers, but then he did some very different stuff. This was his reaction to the shooting [of Kennedy]. He would sit there in his sordid little flat, smoking a million fags, doing these things. He also rewrote Alice in Wonderland, and invented a new language.”
It was a sharp reminder that even the most oneiric forms of art cannot hope to match the strangeness of ordinary lives. Ask The Beatles. Ask Sonny Liston, friend of the family, and silent witness to a magical body of art.
‘Peter Blake: Rock, Paper, Scissors’ is at Waddington Custot Galleries, London W1, Nov 21 to Dec 15; www.waddingtoncustot.com.