Damien Hirst visits Peter Blake’s studio
Model elephants, collage, and an argument with Joseph Beuys… Damien Hirst visits the studio of Peter Blake, one of the leading figures of British Pop art. The two friends walk through rooms filled with objects amassed over a lifetime of collecting, whilst Blake recounts his entry into art school aged thirteen and the many artists he has encountered over the years. They go on to discuss their shared interests, mutual friends, and the influences that have shaped their art-making.
Sir Peter Blake (b. 1932, Dartford, Kent) is a British painter, sculptor, draughtsman and printmaker. He is known as one of the leading figures of British Pop art. Peter Blake studied at Gravesend School of Art before being accepted into the Royal College of Art, London, where he studied alongside other key British Pop artists, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Joe Tilson, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1956, Blake began to appropriate pop culture icons and advertising imagery to create homages to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Elvis Presley and professional wrestlers. His iconic 1961 ‘Self-portrait with Badges’, in the Tate Collection, shows Blake holding an Elvis album, dressed in American jeans, Converse trainers, and baseball badges; here is the artist as a genuine fan. In other works, he composes assemblages of found objects with humorous allusions to art history and childhood fantasies. In 1967 he designed the iconic album cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in his distinctive style of collage. Blake continues to be associated with the music world by designing album covers. In 1975 Blake co-founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group of artists who moved to Somerset to paint nature.
After completing his National Service with the R.A.F., he received the Leverhulme Research Award to study popular art and travelled through Europe 1956-7. Blake’s first one-man exhibition was held in 1962 at the Portal Gallery, London; solo shows followed at the Robert Fraser Gallery, London (1965) and at Leslie Waddington Prints, London (1969). His first retrospective exhibition was held as early as 1969 at the City Art Gallery, Bristol. Subsequent retrospectives were held in 1973 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, touring to Hamburg and Brussels and the Tate Gallery in 1983. In 1994 he was made the Third Associate Artist of the National Gallery, London. Peter Blake was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1981, and was knighted in 2002. In 2007 the Tate Liverpool held a major retrospective of Peter Blake’s work which toured to the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, Spain in 2008. In 2010, Lund Humphries published Peter Blake: One Man Show, a comprehensive monograph by Marco Livingstone.
Peter Blake lives and works in London.
Blake: So that’s the elephant I bought last week. You couldn’t not get it, could you?
Blake: So that’s the elephant collection.
Hirst: So, did you go out and see this or did you buy it from a book?
Blake: It was in the auction in the room the week before and I didn’t go and it didn’t sell and it came up the next week and I thought that’s Fate and I’ve got to get it.
Hirst: Looks like it’s always been here as well.
Blake: It does, doesn’t it? It only came in last week.
Hirst: So cute.
Blake: And that’s all the elephant collection. And that’s the hat collection. And that’s –
Hirst: Oh yeah, great.
Blake: – signed by the Everly Brothers.
Hirst: Really? Wow.
Blake: Very dear to me.
Hirst: I know these from Mexico. All right mate? (to the hats). Look at that.
Blake: Then the collection of frames.
Hirst: I saw – did you see there’s a photograph on the internet where David Hockney’s wearing one of these?
Blake: Oh no!
Hirst: They’ve superimposed it and called it David Cockney.
Blake: Haven’t seen that!
Hirst: I’ll send it to you. It’s funny.
Blake: And then these are some more of the boat sculptures. This is Cowboys versus Indians.
Hirst: Two ships. Where do you get these ships? They’re so odd.
Blake: Got them slowly and then there was the most incredible auction at this auction room where they had about fifteen.
Blake: And I bought ten that day.
Hirst: Oh really?
Blake: So I’m well supplied.
Hirst: Oh my god.
Blake: Then round the corner it’s pirates
Hirst: What’s this one? That’s the –
Blake: This just the wooden bears attacking a butcher.
Hirst: Wow. That is – I love that one.
Blake: This is the newest ship. This is the military shooting down Disney princesses.
Hirst: That’s just – you’re quite twisted underneath it all, aren’t you?
Blake: And then this is the sculpture studio.
Hirst: Wow, the light in here’s great.
Blake: It’s fantastic isn’t it?
Blake: So this is very much a working space. So – um – this is the Robin Hood one. Yeah, this is Robin Hood attacking Goofy.
Hirst: So have you got – are you working on many, many things all at the same time?
Blake: Yeah, well Michael Fraser comes here once every six weeks and he sticks them down so I get them ready and he sticks them down. Yeah, so I’m working on all kinds of projects.
Hirst: So what made you go to art school? Were you making things before?
Blake: No, it was pure chance. I was evacuated and then got a place to the Gravesend Tech where I would have done something in the kind of line of building coz my family were electricians. And at the interview they said the art school is part of the tech, if you want to go to art school pop round the corner, do a drawing test and you can go to art school. So at the age of thirteen –
Hirst: Oh really, that young?
Blake: Yeah. So I went to junior art department at thirteen.
Hirst: Amazing. And did you draw before that? Lots of drawings?
Blake: No, nothing. Nothing during the war.
Blake: So it really was kind of childhood and then suddenly art school and Gravesend School of Art, drawing Quentin Crisp.
Blake: From one day to –
Hirst: Oh yeah, he was a model.
Blake: He was a model at Gravesend, yes. This was a man, I was having a flat decorated in the early 60s and the man said, “My neighbour is an artist, would you like to see his work?”. So, his name was Ted Wilcox and his story was that he’d been rear gunner in the RAF, been shot down and injured and for his recuperation they taught him how to do these embroideries and he did a picture of the Queen, then he did a picture of a ballet dancer and then he went into these crazy pin up girls.
Hirst: They’re brilliant.
Blake: Aren’t they amazing?
Hirst: Yeah, brilliant!
Blake: It’s – so he’d invent the background. He rewrote Alice in Wonderland in his own language.
Hirst: Really? What, using the embroidery?
Blake: Using some kind of symbolism. That’s it on the left there.
Hirst: Oh wow.
Blake: And I commissioned him to do a set of illustrations to Alice and the signs of the zodiac.
Hirst: And where is he now?
Blake: Oh, he’s died – some years ago.
Hirst: And so is there a large body of work or is that?
Blake: No. I bought most of it. I mean – he sat in this little slum of a room –
Hirst: They’re amazing. I love them.
Blake: – drank beer, smoked fags, popped out to put his bets on and then did these amazing stitches.
Hirst: The black line’s great round the figures.
Blake: He’d make up the tattooing – “I love Joey, Chas, Liam, Mike, Ray’s above” – all these jokes going on.
Hirst: Crazy. Great though.
Blake: So these are all collages. Your Eduardo.
Hirst: I love Eduardo. Eduardo was really sweet to me.
Blake: He was a lovely man.
Hirst: Yeah, horrible how he died. Yeah. That’s amazing.
Blake: I’ll show you a couple more.
Hirst: There was a great thing that an artist called Maya Weissman from the 80s said – that collage was the greatest idea of the twenty-first century.
Blake: It is – an amazing vehicle.
Hirst: Twentieth century. Yeah.
Blake: He loved nineteenth century dancers, so that’s with various dancers.
Blake: And that’s the opera house in Paris. This one he finds a stall in the Waterloo plain in Amsterdam where I went as a student and bought great stuff. And it’s all the stuff he uses – so it’s the dream store that you dream about and you haven’t been there. So it’s, you know, the clock faces the marble, there’s the eggs, the stamps.
Hirst: Amazing, yeah.
Blake: And then because I only had that, I’ve covered his leg area with the flags.
Blake: This one is –
Hirst: Wow! So much work.
Blake: – in progress. So there’s a mark.
Hirst: So will these become prints or are these like individual works?
Blake: No. I don’t want them to. I want to just do them and I don’t have a show for them.
That’s a wedding at Hastings. So you’ve got the wedding going on there. And then you’ve got Prince and Dylan Thomas is at the wedding and Rita Hayworth.
Hirst: God, I can’t believe the amount of cutting out you must do.
Blake: I sit in the evenings and do the cutting out.
Hirst: Haven’t you got callouses?
Blake: No. A little bit of soreness there sometimes.
Hirst: Oh this is from the Sargent Pepper’s.
Blake: That’s from Sargent Pepper, yes.
Hirst: I recognise that, yeah.
Blake: Yeah, he’s wearing out, but he’s wonderful and –
Hirst: Yeah, I like the way he’s wearing out as well.
Blake: And that’s the Alice in Wonderland that I commissioned from Ted.
Hirst: Oh wow, this is so great.
Blake: So he invented all kinds of new – new things, like the treacle well and mustard mine. Then this base was the sculpture I made called Sculpture Park that I showed in ’84 at the Tate. And at the time it was about all the – it was a road in the park and then a street at the other end and then various sculptures. So that’s Joseph Beuys with the coyotes but his arm’s bitten off, coz I had a little run in with him once.
Hirst: Oh really?
Hirst: What was that about?
Blake: It was something to do with a floor piece that I either should have walked on and didn’t or shouldn’t and did.
Hirst: What a piece of his work?
Blake: A piece of his work that I walked across.
Hirst: Oh right, yeah.
Blake: And he shouted at me.
Blake: Yeah. At d’Offay’s old gallery. And then this final room. That’s sitting waiting for me to do my autobiography, as reminder. The wallpaper was old screens that I bought in the 60s and if they were damaged they were very cheap. And I used them down in Somerset and luckily they’re on canvas so I could bring them up here and put them –
Hirst: They’re amazing. I’ve never really –
Blake: They’re beautiful, aren’t they?
Hirst: And is done the same way you do the collages? Cut out and –
Blake: Yeah, the – you could buy the images in packets and make – people did lots of scrapbooks using them. And then occasionally made screens. I’ve got about five really good screens.
Hirst: I love that, with that Victorian thing. That’s where I got my idea for the Butterfly paintings.
Blake: Oh was it?
Hirst: I bought a Victorian tea tray where they’d made like a butterfly pattern with wings.
Hirst: Yeah, I mean a lot of my ideas come from Victorian ideas.
Blake: I’ve been banned by Chrissie from doing any more butterflies. I mean, they were in homage to you but she felt eventually –
Hirst: Just pre-date them!
Blake: No, no I wouldn’t do – Eventually she felt I was milking it a bit.
Hirst: Yeah, you can’t get copyright on butterflies.
Blake: No. So long as you don’t mind.
Hirst: All my ideas are stolen anyway.
Blake: Well all ideas are passed, aren’t they?
Blake: Passed one to the another.
Hirst: Yeah, I mean even the spots I’m thinking whether I stole them from Larry Poons or someone.
Blake: Or a plate you saw, or something like that. Nothing’s original is it? I mean, it’s what you do with it, isn’t it?
Hirst: Yeah. I think when I started at Goldsmiths, that was the best thing really, was when you realise you don’t have to be original.
Hirst: They used to say, “Don’t borrow ideas. Steal them”.
Blake: Did they?
Hirst: Yeah. Martin Craig-Martin used to say that and I remember thinking: Really?
So when did you come across collage as an idea? Coz did you start painting then and drawing?
Blake: It was very specific. Painting and drawing really started coz at Gravesend I did the Intermediate and then you had to decide which course you would take, whether you’d do Fine Art or Commercial Art. And I was advised to do the Commercial Art course which I did for a year and then tried for the Royal College for the Graphic Design department and was accepted for the Painting School. So until then I’d never been a painting student. And then I had to do two years National Service. So I arrived at the Royal College still just eighteen having done – coz it all started very early – and became a painting student there.
Hirst: But you’d never done any collage at that point?
Blake: No. And the collage came at the end of the three years, when Dick Smith had a girlfriend called Jasia Reichardt whose uncle and aunt were friends with Schwritters – Kurt Schwitters – and he literally described to me what a collage was.
Hirst: And was it called collage then? Coz it’s a French word isn’t it?
Blake: Probably not. And we’d sit and make –
Hirst: Assemblage I think Schwitters said, didn’t he?
Blake: Maybe, yeah. But we’d – I’ll show you some Dick’s that are there. So we’d sit and make these little objects and it’s really started from there. So 1956, that would have been.
Hirst: What, so you mean you have this studio and you make paintings and you make sculptures or collages and they come out of this kind of environment?
Blake: Yeah, I mean it’s happened. It’s not supposed to be – it’s a working studio.
Hirst: But then you don’t mind it being seen as a thing in its own right?
Blake: Its become that, developed to that. So simply by grouping stuff together, eventually, I mean up, here it was an open space. We had to put columns in to support the building. Coz we kept whatever I could of the old building and then I built a wall and then I built another wall and suddenly you got galleries, you’ve got boxes.
Blake: And stuff congregated into these various boxes. So it becomes like a museum. Something in a way that’s still, still pretty private. In the early days I would take groups round, but I don’t do that anymore. And I have very few visitors so, but – I mean, like you coming here today it’s really interesting to show it to you coz I know you collect as well and I know you’ll be interested in what’s here. Because you’ve a similar collection. But in fact it’s a working, private working studio.
Hirst: Collection stroke addiction.
Blake: Addiction, yeah.
Hirst: And so when you started with the studio was it a very private place and has changed into something you don’t mind people –
Blake: It was very empty. I mean it was an industrial building and when I moved in, coz we bought them at Paul Huxley’s here. And Ben Johnson. And we bought this kind of derelict builder’s yard. And then I got, I was Artist in Residence at National Gallery. For the two years I was there this was being restored. So I literally moved from the National Gallery into here with an easel and a couple of pictures into an empty space. And then stuff that was in the house that was kind of surplus to the house we moved to here and it slowly evolved from then. There’s a point in my life I think where it isn’t appropriate any more to collect. I’ve reached – I think having shown it the three times, I’ve kind of reached a conclusion with most of the collections. So with the elephants for instance, it was only seeing that extraordinary elephant last week that made me buy it.
Hirst: That’s like the true addict.
Hirst: That stops…
Blake: I just felt that I had to have that. But I’m not looking for elephants any more. So it’s like clearing the desk.
Blake: And I’m 85 now and –
Hirst: Wow, 85.
Blake: Yeah. So, you’ve got to start thinking you’re on the last stretch, you know. So, I’m – it’s a kind of swan song and it’s going well. I’m working well.
Hirst: But we’re going to do a few more.
Blake: Oh yeah.
Hirst: There might be a couple more elephants left.
Blake: There might be. Few more elephants waiting for me.
Hirst: And when people look at the studio or part of the studio, would you expect them to see more in that than they would in like a collage or a painting?
Blake: People find stuff. I mean some people, it goes completely over their heads. And other people might look in a little box that I’d forgotten and say, “Oh you’ve got a so and so”. So people read it in different ways.
Hirst: And what do you want people to take from it when they see it?
Blake: Well, I hope – I mean you, for example, I hope you’ll put it in your kind of memory bank as a nice day where two old friends meet, and I showed you the studio again and we had a nice morning.
Hirst: I think there’s a really strong sensibility that you have so it’s like whenever, you know, a lot of people could look in here and say, “Oh, it’s a room full of junk” or something but I think it’s like, yeah I can always tell when it’s you doing a collage compared to anyone else. It’s much, it’s very subtle and very delicate. Much more delicate than a lot of other – I mean than anything else I can think of really.
Blake: Well that’s good, good to hear.
With thanks to…
Sir Peter Blake
Damien Hirst/Science (UK) Ltd
- Damien Hirst (official website)
- ‘Peter Blake’, Art UK
- Neil Mulholland, ‘London Sensation’, The Burlington Magazine, December 1997
- Rose Aidin, ‘The YBAs: The London-based Young British Artists’, Smarthistory, 7 October 2017
- Dr. Virginia B. Spivey, ‘A-Level: Pop Art’, Smarthistory, 27 July 2017
- ‘Pop art in the UK’, Khan Academy
- Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (London: Verso, 1999)
- Peter Blake, Christoph Grunenberg and Laurence Sillars, Peter Blake: A Retrospective (London: Tate Publishing, 2007)
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