English painter, printmaker and sculptor. He studied at Gravesend Technical College and School of Art from 1946 to 1951, and from 1953 at the Royal College of Art, London, where he was awarded a First-Class Diploma in 1956. He then travelled through Europe for a year on a Leverhulme Research Award to study the popular and folk art that had already served him as a source of inspiration. While still a student Blake began producing paintings that openly testified to his love of popular entertainment and the ephemera of modern life, for example Children Reading Comics (1954; Carlisle, Mus. & A.G.), and which were phrased in a faux-naïf style that owed something to the example of American realist painters such as Ben Shahn. In these works Blake displayed his nostalgia for dying traditions not only by his preference for circus imagery but also by artificially weathering the irregular wooden panels on which he was then painting. His respect for fairground art, barge painting, tattooing, commercial art, illustration and other forms of image-making rooted in folkloric traditions led him to produce some of the first works to which the term Pop art was later applied. His attitude to his source material was consistently that of the fan, to the extent that he literally wore his allegiances on his sleeve in Self-portrait with Badges (1961; London, Tate).
Blake’s virtuosity as a draughtsman was largely directed to naturalist and academic traditions, giving this side of his work an old-fashioned air tempered by the contemporaneity of his subject-matter. From the late 1950s, however, he also produced works far more radical in conception by eliminating the personal touch. Fine Art Bit (1959; London, Tate), Got a Girl (1960–61; U. Manchester, Whitworth A.G.) and Toy Shop (1962; London, Tate) typify the collage paintings and constructions composed only of patterns of bright colour and of ready-made materials such as postcards, photographs, book illustrations, toys and other objects, and brutally presented without mediation. The acts of selection and retrieval in these works, generally made in alliance with references to pop music and mass entertainment, including Hollywood films, wrestling, pin-ups and strip-tease, are presented as equivalent to the painstaking recording of observations.
Blake’s devotion to illustration and to Victorian art, clearly avowed in his watercolours for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass (1970–71; priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., nos. 153–60), which were also reproduced as screenprints, dominated his work between 1975 and 1979. At that time he was living in Wellow, near Bath, and painting with like-minded artists who styled themselves the Brotherhood of Ruralists. Blake’s work of this period, on such 19th-century themes as fairy painting, was at its most effete and sentimental. A slow and painstaking technician, Blake demonstrated little stylistic development after this ruralist phase but continued to produce small-scale paintings and drawings of great refinement and popular appeal. To the general public, however, he remains best known as the designer of the record cover for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles (1967), a fitting tribute to his genuine enthusiasm for the popular icons of his time.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press