My V&A: Peter Blake

Peter Blake remembers student days at the V&A and picks some favourites from the Prints and Drawings Study Room

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My V&A: Sir Peter Blake, Artist, in the Prints & Drawing Study Room

Peter Blake

Well, I think the V&A is just a treasure house of everything you can think of and everything I'm interested in, I mean there is the theatre museum, which was here before it went away, it was here.

When I was at college which was from '53 to '56, it was very quiet. I mean you could come in and go to draw, and if you went higher than the second floor you wouldn't see anybody else. I could sit in the ceramics galleries and not see a soul, just have one attendant there and I could draw all the afternoon. So it was a very different place.

The Beggarstaff Brothers, 'Don Quixote', 1895

The cafe was tiny, I can't remember which room it was in but all around the walls were the original Beggarstaff Brothers posters so we would sit at the table next to the Don Quixote, the wonderful Don Quixote. I mean you could touch it, you could touch the paper. I think that was only for a couple of years and it was quickly put behind glass but it was being in the middle of all this extraordinary art.

There was a door that actually connected so you were thirty seconds away from the V&A and you were straight into the mediaeval sculpture so it was just the most extraordinary treasure house.

Well, I think the element of Popular Art suddenly appeared. I mean, the first year at the Royal College you had to spend all the time in the life rooms either drawing or painting from life and then in your second year you were more or less left to your own devices and I started painting pictures like children with comics and the pop culture began to enter then. Still a ruffian really. I mean, still working class, still going to the wrestling, still going to football so although I was becoming cultured it was all still there and I think I just started to paint my life. I painted the childhood I remembered, the children reading comics, the fairground pieces, the world I knew. I think that became my branch of Pop Art.

I think what was relevant in coming into the V&A at that point was craft really. I mean you would walk through and see tiny little wood sculptures, medieval wood sculptures of Christ or whatever it might be. My chosen craft was Roman lettering, I was, and still am, quite skilled in lettering but we also were taught wood carving, stone carving, wood engraving, silversmithing, architecture, anatomy - so we were taught the crafts. It was very much a V&A tradition, art schools still were, of being very much craft places as well.

William Blake, 'Tiriel Upheld on the Shoulders of Ijim, addresses His Daughters', about 1789.

I've chosen William Blake first because people have joked over the years "am I related to him?" and once when I had a show at the Tate, it was in '83 and some of the warders are still friends, they still come up, and one of them came up and said "is our Mr. Blake your uncle?"

William Blake, 'The Quato and Saccawinkee Monkeys', 1796

So I feel an affinity with Blake and sometimes in the watercolours I almost feel as though I've done them so I've chosen that because I may be his ancestor. It would be nice. I should do a search really and see if I am.

Graham Sutherland, 'The Garden', 1931

And then I've chosen a group of pieces by English artists, early twentieth century. This for instance is a Graham Sutherland. They made wood engravings mainly about the countryside and it was Sutherland, Badmin, Griggs.

SR Badmin, 'Melford Hall, Long Melford', 1940

Gill is another person that I collect that I've always been interested in. I suppose originally because, as I've said, my craft for the intermediate was Roman lettering and I mean Gill is still the typeface I instantly relate to.

Eric Gill, 'Eve', 1926

Gill and stencil I use constantly and I've got some actual Gill wood blocks so I've got some nice things by him.

Eric Gill, 'Nigra sum sed Formosa', 1929

He has a particular way of working which is white line on black where he more or less keeps the black block and just cuts the line away. Whereas, the other way of working is to cut your whites away and leave the black line standing. So that's a technique he uses particularly.

Walter Sickert, 'Mother and Daughter', about 1915

Just the simplicity of that line and just those little drawn lines making the shadow.

Walter Sickert. 'Emily Lyndale as Sinbad the Sailor', about 1888

That's lovely: the atmosphere, I mean, all that smoky atmosphere and then the performer. Beautiful.

Walter Sickert, 'Et delector es', about 1915

That face I mean there's nothing there on that side. You know it's in shadow and you kind of know all about it. I also liked the way he used lettering. I imagine somebody else put that on.

Augustus John, 'Jacob Epstein', 1905-6

Then we've got Gwen John and in the kind of controversy of whether Gwen or Augustus was the better I think they were both extraordinary and both different and both fantastic and my quest as a collector is to get a Gwen John watercolour.

Gwen John, 'Sketch of a seated cat', about 1920

It was to get a Gwen John watercolour and a Sickert etching. I bought a Sickert etching so now if the right one turns up I'll probably get one at auction. [David Redhead] "Well we'll look the other way" [Peter Blake laughs]

What was so exciting then, looking round today, to see people working here just with a box or what they want to see and they can touch them, I mean it's extraordinary. I mean it's a secret, you know, I mean it's always quiet in here. I suppose the students know about it don't they? But the fact you can look through a box of Rembrandts is amazing.

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In the 1950s, Pop art legend Peter Blake spent many a long afternoon sketching amidst the glorious isolation of the V&A's Ceramic galleries

In this film, Blake provides us with an insight into the nature of art and design education 50 years ago and reveals how his working class upbringing, his love of popular culture and his taste for hands-on craft all became central to his work.

In the quiet of the Prints and Drawings Study Room, Blake takes a  detailed look at some of the early 20th-century prints he collects and tells us about his affection for the work of  Eric Gill, Walter Sickert and his namesake William Blake, who may or may not be a distant relative…