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Last week, I received an invitation to the preview of ‘Llareggub’; Sir Peter Blake’s series of works based on Thomas’ ‘Under Milk Wood’. This card brought back particular memories of the celebrated Pop Artist from the early eighties.

In late 1982, I was barely out of art college; scraping around for art-related employment which would permit me to continue my painting practice. I was very fortunate as a recipient of support from the writer and critic Hugh Adams. Then head of critical studies at Hull College of Arts, he suggested my name to the editor of the regional arts magazine. My brief was to select a work in the collection of the Ferens art Gallery in Hull and discuss some aspect of its history or making. The piece which most appealed to me at that time was a painting by Peter Blake. entitled ‘The Lettermen’.

Although I had no direct connection with the artist, I had the temerity to send a questionnaire to Peter Blake via his gallery [Waddington] in London. This consisted of quite a long list of questions in an attempt to mine his recollections about his art practice in general and his work on this painting in particular. I didn’t expect too much from a busy, high profile academician; at best, a few lines would help me develop my article beyond the usual couple of paragraphs of personal exposition. More likely, I would receive a letter of censure from his dealer or some other ‘gatekeeper’ set up to separate the public from their ‘property’. Image my delight when I received a hand written letter of several pages by Peter Blake himself. He gave considered responses to all the questions I had sent; far more information than I needed to complete the article. This letter remains one of my treasured possessions.

In closing, he apologised for his answers not being as expansive as I might have liked. I did not realise until several weeks later, when pre-publicity for his major solo retrospective at the Tate Gallery filtered through the media [this was 1983;- pre-www.], that  he had received my letter while he was heavily engaged in organising his landmark show. To take time out from this task and reply to an item of correspondence from a stranger for a provincial magazine marks Sir Peter Blake out as a considerate, good man. I will never forget his generous gesture.

Incidentally, I travelled down to London to see the retrospective. Everyone who purchased a copy of the catalogue also received a souvenir print -each personally signed by the artist. How many prints did the Tate request for their catalogue print run? Did Peter really need to take time out from this to answer a questionnaire sent from Hull? Or did I perhaps provide him with the necessary break from his preparations and clear his head briefly, before resuming his administrative duties? Probably not…

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my battered copy of the Tate retrospective catalogue from 1983

 

The following is the transcript of that article, published in the Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts DIARY magazine. May-June 1983 issue Original images were published in monochrome.

 

THE LETTERMEN: by Peter Blake

 

Glenn Ibbitson continues DIARY’S series of articles about works of art at the Ferens Art gallery in Hull

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The Beatles’ album, ‘Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band’ has, since its release in 1967, passed into rock legend. Its cover is one which most people between the ages of fifteen and forty-five could recall to mind the instant the title is mentioned. Like the photographs of the Saigon execution and the Apollo 11 moonwalk, it is one of the key images which characterise the sixties. A measure of its impact is that a high number of record buyers could also name that cover’s designer, the fine artist Peter Blake. By 1981, sales figures for this album had exceeded ten million worldwide. [1] Evidently far fewer record collections contain a copy the album which provided the source for another of Blake’s pop group images, ‘The Lettermen’.

‘The Lettermen’ were in a tradition of American Varsity vocal groups like ‘The Four Freshmen’, ‘The Hi-lo’s’ and ‘The Four Preps’. [2] A ‘Letter’ in the USA being the equivalent of a ‘Blue’ in a UK university, it provided the group with a title and the distinctive logo displayed on their jackets. With the impending rise of the Beatles, the days of success for such American imports were numbered. Nevertheless, in 1962, Blake’s reason for choosing this outfit as a subject for a large easil painting was straightforward. “The attraction was that I was a fan, particularly of Rock and Roll. I was a great fan of ‘the Lettermen'”.[3]

It was the phenomenon of idol and adulation which particularly captured the artist’s imagination. “I’m a fan of the legend rather than the person.”[4] Blake had had made such legend-building the theme of his 1961’Self Portrait with badges’, using himself as a consumer of promotional ephemera marketed by the pop industry. Badges and fan magazines not merely reflected passing enthusiasms for a succession of groups, but served to advance the myth of mass following. Many young artists of the sixties identified with the idols of film matinees and pop music, “partly as a normal reaction against orthodox so-called cultural things – you know, Beethoven and D. H. Lawrence, the whole culture-monger concept of foreign films and such like But of course, because Elvis, The Beatles, The Lettermen and The Four Preps really do symbolise the vast popular culture from which Pop Art so largely derives its source of inspiration”. [5]

‘The Lettermen’ was part of a general series”spread over a number of years, including Bo Diddley, La Verne Baker, Elvis and The Beatles”[6] It is perhaps the most painterly of this series, the artist’s manipulations resulting in a rich surface of marks. There were two quite distinct reasons for the adoption of such handling at this point in Blake’s development. During his years at the Royal College of Art, he had looked at the work of the American artists, Johns, Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers. Their paintings were emerging from Abstract Expressionism, reintroducing representational imagery, yet retaining the painterliness of their immediate predecessors. By 1962, Blake had also brought his own work under review. As a student, he had investigated the potential of collage technique. This had been an acceptable means of fine art expression since Picasso’s experiments with printed surfaces between 1911 – 1912, but Blake’s work was a reminder that it was in fact taken to heights of considerable elaboration by Victorian amateurs in firescreens and scrapbooks. Like the components of these hobby objects, his elements were carefully chosen so that their juxtaposition would give run to evocative associations. A collage in the pop music series, ‘Got a Girl’ 1960-61 included six pop idol pin-ups and a record single by ;The Four Preps’. Blake’s collages had always involved some degree of painting, but the artist’s work was beginning to become associated with a particular technique. Perhaps he himself felt that collage was beginning to restrict his less immediate means of expression. ” I want to re-establish the idea of myself as a painter; as an artist who uses paint I’m not just a collagist I’ve always painted”[7] ‘The Lettermen’ was therefore a very important painting, its style a deliberate stratagem in guiding the artist’s work from one phase to the next.

This painterliness disguises the fact that the original source for the composition was photographic. Blake used the photograph from a ‘Lettermen’ album in his record collection. He has frequentlyused photographic material as his point of departure on a painting. The Pop Art movement as a whole relied heavily on the photograph, using its anonymous surface character to achieve a smooth, overall finish, devoid of personal virtuosity. It has been said that “the real dynamic of Pop is is best realised when style and subject merge into a single unified Gestalt.”[8] Blake’s painting has never conformed to such a limited definition. His technique is that of traditional oil painting, with the modalities of surface that implies. What emerges in his work from a photograph is not photorealist style, but simply image information which he is able to develop. Close inspection of ‘The Lettermen’ reveals changes in the script set by the album cover. The form of the head of the left figure has been subjected to quite drastic revision. The course of an earlier broad brushstroke-sweep around the cheek and chin has been covered by subsequent paint work which describes the specific details of the face. The head of the central figure has been replaced during the painting’s development, pencil contours and paint edges do not correspond, and the right shoulder has been lowered from its original level. In the bottom right corner of the image, an area of pink does not align to the drawing of the hand which which it represents, inches above and across to the right. This later piece of line drawing is the deviation from the original photograph since it is not in proportion to the head or arm length. These details typify Blake’s approach; options are kept open during procedure.

The differences in paint quality; the degree of matte and gloss finish across the image surface, are achieved through the use of one medium only, oil paint. “There may have been some acrylics used but I don’t think so. The cryla paintings seem to start the next year in 1963.”[9] The fundamental reason for these differences is that we are discussing a painting which was never completed: several stages, from bare hardboard to features of full construction stand side by side. This is not unsatisfactory, because we can see how the painting developed Five distinct stages can be identified:

1. The initial broad brush outlines of dark grey and blue can be seen around and beneath the jacket paint of the central figure

2. Areas thus defined are infilled in a gestural manner. Variable paintstrokes characterise this stage, describing the central figures trousers, and the locker-room background which is not developed beyond this point.

3. Forms develop and the paint surface builds up through a series of scumbled paint layers, allowing underlayers and drawing through. The letter of the middle man has been covered by thin strokes of off-white paint. This figure is left in this out of focus state and as a result, takes up a space behind the plane of his fellow musicians. The process develops with the figure on the left, giving more volume to the body beneath jacket folds.

4. Sharp line drawing characterises this figure. Tie, collar, jacket edge and letter are crisply focused and nose, teeth and chin are chiselled with fine brushline. The figure opposite has also been re-focused; teeth, nostril eye and face contour are finely delineated as is the collar and tie knot.

5. The heads of these two musicians are the most realised volumes. Line and paint here describe the particulars of a structure. The handling of the paint between features is sympathetic to the curves of a forehead,chin or cheek, consisting of the smallest most delicate strokes of the painting.

 

“I was frustrated that [The Lettermen] was as unfinished as it was. I seem to remember that it had to be ready by a certain point, probably for a particular show”[10] Blake has frequently exhibited ‘unfinished’ paintings. “For a long time now I’ve had this thing about showing works in progress and there are pictures that I’ve started in the mid-sixties that I’ve shown two or three times; it’s important that they were shown”[11]. This philosophy benefits the art viewing public in two ways: it is informed of the artist’s activity at the moment; and the technique employed is opened to analysis, the process of audience mystification voluntarily halted. Blake also had precedents for this variable degree of finish. Rauschenberg and Rivers used ‘unfinish’ as a positive technique, resisting the idea of conventional completion; while collage as a concept had greatly reduced the resistance to hybrid forms occupying the same picture surface. Even if this painting had reached a later stage before purchase, the dichotomy between image proper and the lower section would have remained.

The work is one 48×72 inch piece of hardboard, though the differing paint type and application to a section physically separated by a green slat, would suggest that the group’s title plate is a part of the surround. It is nevertheless an integral part of the composition. Obviously, the title of the group would have been included on the album cover, in large bold type and presumably separate from the group photograph. Blake followed this fifties and early sixties format [a conversion which he was instrumental in destroying with his Beatles album cover]. But his chosen colour scheme was not derived from the cover. He used it in several works, including ‘The Da Vinci Brothers’. “It was a device I used quite often at the time. It’s difficult to say why I did it. I suppose it may come from popular art sources”. [12] One year after ‘The Lettermen’ ws completed, Blake referred to his point of reference for emphatic lettering and colouring. “I started to become a Pop Artist from my interest in English folk art, especially my interest in the visual art of the fairground, and barge painting too. Now I want to recapture and bring to life something of this old time popular art” [13] by updating the imagery accompanying the traditional hoarding. Masking tape was used to retain sharp edges while the lettering was filled by bright unmodulated gloss finish paint. “I haven’t seen the picture for some time but remember that the lettering at the bottom of the picture was probably enamel”[14]

Whether a deliberate ploy on Blake’s part or not, by surrounding the image with black enamel painted slats himself, he automatically forestalled any attempt by a second party to mount the picture in a conventional elaborately moulded frame. One need only visit the Tate Gallery’s modern art collection to see that these archaic frames are still employed to keep contemporary paintings within bounds. ‘The Lettermen’ labours under no such handicap; there are no barriers physical or psychological to distance viewer from work. This is most fortunate, since the characteristic of any popular art has always been its accessibility.

 

Notes:

1] The Long and Winding Road N. Stannard Virgin 1982

2] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

3] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

4] exhibition catalogue Bristol City Art Gallery 1969

5] “Peter Blake; Pop Art for Admass” Studio November 1963

6] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

7] “Peter Blake; Pop Art for Admass” Studio November 1963

8] “Pop Art Redefined” Suzi Gablik [with J. Russell 1969 p11

9] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

10] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

11] Art Line Magazine 2 November 1982

12] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

13] “Peter Blake; Pop Art for Admass” Studio November 1963

14] correspondence with the artist, November 1982

 

Link to the Sir Peter Blake ‘LLareggub’ exhibition

Oriel y Parc: May 17th – September 23rd 2014

 

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