Interview with Sir Peter Blake: “I made a conscious decision to be kind to younger artists”

The pop “godfather” on stuffed animals, the urge to collect and the burden of Sergeant Pepper

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For over six decades Sir Peter Blake, held to be the founding father of British pop art, has been accumulating an extraordinary array of found objects, curios and ephemera, which has turned his west London studio into multiple mini-museums devoted to subjects ranging from vintage sporting and fairground artefacts to music memorabilia. Yesterday a large selection from his collections (“Exhibition #3”) went on show at The Museum of Everything, the UK’s first museum devoted to work by unknown or untrained artists, and which is based in a former dairy in Primrose Hill, north London. The show has been co-curated with the museum’s founder, James Brett.

The Art Newspaper: What are you putting in the Museum of Everything?

Peter Blake: The exhibition runs through the building and is evolving all the time. We’ve taken a lot of things from my studio and reconfigured them in the Museum but I couldn’t quite deal with the whole thing going because it’s my environment and I need it around me—each body of work I do, I collect for. So we’ve cherry-picked from the studio and added things from other places. The overall theme is popular entertainment: the circus, the fairground, and there’s one area which will be devoted to puppetry and Punch and Judy and one room with pieces by a man who made fairground models. In the first room I’m bringing in a group of very disparate things that tell a partial story of my life. There are some examples of fairground painting, some old engravings and I’m dipping back into a lot of moments including some pictures painted by Cheetah the chimpanzee, which were part of my show in the National Gallery.

TAN: There’s also a room full of bizarre tableaux of stuffed animals from Potter’s Museum of Curiosity, put together in the late 19th century by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter.

PB: I first came across Potter’s Museum when I was a teenage cyclist and it was this amazing experience, this mad little museum full of stuffed animals doing extraordinary things. When it was split up in 2003 I went to the sale, gave myself a £10,000 budget and managed to get two key pieces, which are in the show [along with] some smaller pieces. We are trying to recreate the museum in the show: Damien [Hirst] is also lending some works which he got after the auction, including one big tableau called Happy Families.

TAN: Have you always collected?

PB: My dad collected trains and my grandmother was a mad collector–she collected gypsy caravans, which would just rot away. During the war she [collected] aluminium mince meat machines; she had 40 of them in this tiny little house in Worcester and never used them. She also collected cocktail cabinets and in the front room not bigger than 12ft. square she had four very elaborate cocktail cabinets from the 1930s, but she never drank cocktails! So I think the genes must be there. I started to collect when I was 14 and first went to junior art school—I bought a painting of the Queen Mary [ocean liner], a papier-mâché tray, and a complete set of bound Shakespeare.

TAN: You are often described as a presiding force of pop art, yet much of your work seems to have little to do with pop art…

PB: You’re right—it’s just a bit of my life. Sergeant Pepper [he designed the famous cover for the Beatles’ album] is a terrible albatross to me now; people I meet think that’s all I did. But I don’t mind, it’s rather nice to be called the godfather of pop art. British pop art wasn’t recognised in America at all.

TAN: Now you are very much in the swing of things, and especially friendly with many of the artists of the Hirst generation—what attracted you to them?

PB: Gordon Burn took me to a Gavin Turk show in the early 1990s and I happened to meet them all. When I was a young artist I remembered each incident when older artists were kind, and I remember the incidents when they were spiteful and nasty, and I think I always made a conscious decision to be kind to younger artists—although these artists didn’t really need my support or my friendship! Then when I was the senior hanger for the 2001 RA Summer show they all showed; on one wall was a Damien spot painting and opposite was a beautiful Bridget Riley and they sang across the room to each other.

TAN: In 1969 you retreated to Bath in disgust at the brashness and commercialism of the art scene. What do you feel about the current scene?

PB: I’ve never been a complete success, my pictures aren’t that expensive even now, and I’ve never been a total failure. In a way I’ve always floated along away from the art market. I’m always working but I’ve never made a lot of money and as long as I live comfortably, have a comfortable place to work and have enough money that’s all I’ve wanted.

Exhibition #3, Museum of Everything, junction of Regents Park Road and Sharples Hall Street, London NW1, until 24 December. www.musevery.com

St Paul’s Cathedral commission—2011

“I’ve been commissioned by the Knights Bachelors to make a painting of St Martin for their new chapel in the crypt of St Paul’s. St Martin was a Roman centurion who cut his cloak in half and gave it to a beggar and that beggar was Jesus. The new chapel is in the artists’ corner. William Blake is there, Millais is there and I’m told that this is the first commissioned painting to go into St Paul’s since The Light of the World.”

Homage 10 x 5—

Blake’s Artists

Waddington Galleries, 17 November-11 December

“I’m choosing ten artists and doing five pieces of work in homage to each of them. They are: Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Sonia Delaunay, Mark Dion, Jack Pierson, Saul Steinberg, Henri Matisse, Damien Hirst and H.C. Westermann. It’s my way of saying thank you to the artists I like.”

Recent and new prints

Galleria Michela Rizzo, Venice (in collaboration with Paul Stolper), until 31 December

“I first went to Venice in 1957 on a scholarship and it has been an inspiring place for me ever since. I returned 50 years later for the Biennale in 2007 and found some beautiful vintage postcards and illustrations, some of which have become part of the “Venice Suite” of prints which I made earlier this year. I’m so happy that they are now being shown in Venice for the first time.”

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