Magazine article The Spectator

Knight Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Knight Vision

Article excerpt

Sir Peter Blake is much in demand. A popular figure since he rose to fame with his unforgettable design for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album (1967), he has long been a spokesman for his generation and for the arts. His knighthood in 2002 brought a whole host of new requests and obligations, much of it figurehead stuff: his name on lists of patrons, or as the chairman of selection committees. To take these things seriously is time-consuming, and Blake has to be rigorous about preserving his hours in the studio, where typically he is busy on a number of projects at once.

On the eve of a retrospective of his paintings at Tate Liverpool (29 June-23 September) I visited him in his west London studio, which is a treasure-house of objects and art. Blake is an inveterate collector, and the studio is partly a museum or cabinet of curiosities, as well as being the place where he paints, draws, makes collages and assembles his box constructions and sculptures.

I asked him if he has a strong sense of public responsibility. 'I've always felt that I wanted to give things back to art because it gave to me.' Blake is known for his readiness to espouse a good cause or give freely of his time. In private life, he is equally generous, a loyal friend and supporter.

The public figure and the private dovetail in terms of promoting a particular ethos: not quite Pop Art, though it encompasses some of Pop's characteristics and coincidentally includes a number of celebrated pop musicians including Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, and not quite a simple cult of celebrity, though Blake has always enjoyed the company of the show-biz famous. His world is unique: part archaising, with an obsessive interest in past art and artefacts, and part utterly contemporary. 'I'm friendly, as you know, with most of the so-called YBAs, simply because when I was a young artist people were nice to me. They don't need encouragement or me to like them.' But he does, and he not only drinks with Tracey and Damien, but he puts them into the cast of characters which populate his paintings, along with Duchamp, Picasso and Cheetah the chimp.

The forthcoming retrospective was initially planned as a show of what Blake calls 'large-ish key paintings', but it soon outstripped those modest beginnings, and became more wide-ranging, providing a detailed survey of Blake's career as a painter. When he was the third associate artist of the National Gallery (1994-6), and given a show there at the end of his residency, Blake chose to regard this as an impossible act to follow, and announced his retirement in 1996 at the age of 64.

(Spot the Beatles reference. ) Since then, his exhibitions have been what he terms a succession of 'encores', though the Liverpool show is a pretty substantial one.

And there's a new twist. 'The new concept is that I'm into my Late Period as well, ' says Blake. 'I'm having a stencil made saying "Late Period" and I'm taking advantage of the fact that I'm aware I'm in my Late Period.' As he points out, artists usually have to be dead before a late period is recognised. 'I'm hoping not to be too infirm but to take advantage of the fact that I'm 75 in June. Use it to finish things, perhaps, but also to do things that might not be characteristic. The first group of Late Period pictures are called "Costume Life" and there'll be six of those, of nude young women but wearing costume clothes. They're also a direct homage to Klimt -- I like to copy directly some of his backgrounds, as though I'm painting my girls in his studio.' What are the characteristics of this new period? …

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