A Colourful Character to Brighten Your Day Sir Peter Blake pictured at The Hard Days Night Hotel, 29th February 2016

A Colourful Character to Brighten Your Day

There’s good surprises and there’s bad surprises. But getting the chance to interview Sir Peter Blake at his namesake restaurant in Liverpool was definitely a good surprise.

Sir Peter Balke's Sgt Pepper's album cover
Sir Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper’s album cover

Sir Peter is a legend and is widely regarded as the inventor of pop art. His searingly memorable cover design for The Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was the defining artwork of the sixties and continues to be culturally significant to this day.

It is often said that Liverpool is a city that never leaves you, and that certainly seems to be the case for Sir Peter, whose orbit always comes back to Liverpool in one way or another. At 84 years old, there’s still plenty of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Sir Peter. Last year he gave Liverpool’s Snowdrop ferry a daring makeover, totally transforming one of our city’s most famous vessels.

Today Sir Peter’s here to announce the launch of Dazzle 2016, a limited edition print for Liverpool Biennial, based on his 2015 ferry commission. But I’m really interested in discovering more about his enduring relationship to Liverpool, and how he feels about all those endless Sgt Pepper’s homages. Luckily Sir Peter was more than happy to tell all.

As I enter Blake’s restaurant, Part of Hard Days Night Hotel, Sir Peter is sat unassumingly in the corner, beneath a sea of other famous faces mounted on the wall. We’re introduced and Sir Peter instantly puts me at ease, smiling and commenting on the ‘miserable weather’. After our introductions, I ask Sir Peter to tell me about his long established connection to our city.

“Liverpool is just a beautiful city and that’s inspiring to me, as an artist…”

“Liverpool has always been part of my life, in one way or another. The city supported me at the very beginning of my career and it’s still supporting me now. I was born in Kent, but I very much feel like a son of Liverpool.”

“My first encounter with the city was by ferry, travelling from Belfast, in 1952. You never forget that skyline. Then again for the Junior John Moores Art Prize in 1962, which I won. That kick-started my career. Liverpool is just a beautiful city and that’s inspiring to me, as an artist. I’ve actually worked here more than any other city outside London.”

Sir Peter Blake's Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961 © Tate London
Sir Peter Blake’s Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961 © Tate London

From our conversation, it’s clear that Sir Peter welcomes his association with Liverpool. I ask him how the city has responded to his work during his long career.

“It’s always been positive, even today, people have been stopping me in the street, telling me how much they appreciate my work. The people here are very open, very welcoming and they’re genuinely interested in art.”

“When I did the original Dazzle Ship in 2014 to commemorate WW1, the designs were grey, dark and respectful. But when I did the Dazzle Ferry in 2015 the Centenary had passed, so it needed to be cheerful and bright and to really stand out. I felt that would work for Liverpool, because it’s such a colourful city.”

“At first I was worried that the design might upset or offend people. Liverpool’s ferry is a landmark piece of its culture, but I shouldn’t have been worried. People have really taken it to their hearts and it looks fantastic sailing along the Mersey.”

Sir Peter asks about It’s Liverpool, and I explain that we help to promote the city as a great place to live, work, study and visit. This leads into a conversation about Liverpool’s many galleries and how they attract visitors.

“Tate is always top of my list when I visit Liverpool.  I’m a patron so the gallery is actually one of my main reasons for me visiting the city so often.  I’m not too familiar with the nightclubs any more, although I used to be. The city has changed a lot since my first show here, the regeneration has been astonishing. The people of Liverpool must be proud.”

Sir Peter meets John Lennon
Blake’s 1961 self-portrait, wearing jeans and canvas trainers, won the 1961 John Moores art prize in Liverpool. This didn’t impress John Lennon. ‘He was a bit rude the first time we met,’ said Blake. ‘I’d just won the John Moores prize and he said, “Stuart [Sutcliffe, early Beatles bass player and also an artist] should have won, not you!” That was his opening gambit.’

I ask Sir Peter about his own work, which has also seen a recent resurgence. What piece is he most proud of?

“It changes, at the moment I’m particularly proud of my self-portrait that’s currently hanging up in Tate London and another piece called ‘Toy Shop’. It’s the pioneering ones, the riskier ones that always stand out for me. In art it’s good to be ahead of the times.”

True to his word, Sir Peter is of the first artists to allow people to ‘remix’ his art on an app, appropriately entitled ‘Dazzle app’. How did that come about?

“They asked me, I said yes. My Dazzle art lends itself to that kind of thing well, it’s emblematic, but also like a jigsaw.  You sort of want to move it around. It’s crazy, but I haven’t actually seen the app yet. I must get someone to show me. I’m always open to new technology and I enjoy seeing how it interacts with art.”

SSir Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2015. Photo: Mark McNulty
Sir Peter Blake, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, 2015. Photo: Mark McNulty

Given Sir Peter’s interest in modern technology, I start to wonder if there’s anyone in the current charts who he would like to do a portrait of, or an album cover for.

“There’s so many, I almost did an official portrait of the Queen. I’ve done two portraits of her, but not official ones. I’ve did a sleeve for Bryan Wilson, for the cover for his album ‘Gettin In Over My Head’.

“Bryan has people like Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Elton John doing guest vocals. Originally I’d illustrated them all in this American town. I had Elton John dancing, but we didn’t have the rights to use their likeness, so I had to remove them.”

This leads us to talk about Sir Peter’s seminal and much imitated Sgt Pepper’s sleeve artwork. How does Sir Peter feel about all those Sgt Pepper lookalikes?

“Mothers of Invention were the first to do that. I remember being slightly angry at the time. Looking back, I now think theirs was the best, it was certainly the wittiest.

Brian Wilson's 'Gettin In Over My Head' album cover by Sir Peter Blake
Brian Wilson’s ‘Gettin In Over My Head’ album cover by Sir Peter Blake

“I myself am asked to do them constantly. Crowd shots of people are a good way to get an interesting visual because you get to see a group of people together, to see them interact and imagine what they’re like in a crowd.”

A crowd of other journalists are also waiting to interview Sir Peter, but before I’m ushered away I ask him to tell me what’s next for him in Liverpool.

“I’ve been a patron for Biennial for two years and I’ve been a judge. This year I’m hoping to show my collection of maritime art at Liverpool Maritime Museum. That’s another connection that Liverpool and I have, we’re both drawn to maritime heritage.

“Liverpool’s Biennial is so good because the city understands the value of art and is always eager to push boundaries. I also just like the Biennial concept. Having an art event every two years gives artists a chance to regroup and the time to deliver something special.

“It also gives people a chance to miss you. This helps Biennial to make a really strong impact and to surprise people, in a good way, which is something I always like to do.”

For more information on Sir Peter Blake’s Dazzle 2016 limited edition print click here.

For more on Liverpool Biennial click here.

For more on Tate Liverpool click here.