Holly Johnson and Peter Blake: How we met

'I told Peter that some of his work from the 1960s is quite homoerotic; he found that quite amusing as it wasn't by intention'
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The Independent Online

Holly Johnson, 54

In the 1980s, Johnson (left in picture) was lead vocalist of pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the second act in history to achieve UK number ones with their first three singles, 'Relax', 'Two Tribes' and 'The Power of Love'. He has since embarked on a painting career, exhibiting at Tate Liverpool and London's Royal Academy

I was seven when the remarkable Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band record sleeve [which Blake co-designed] was released. I grew up in a Liverpool terrace house, in a black-and-white world, and when it arrived I felt like Dorothy, emerging into a Technicolor Munchkin Land, and I spent hours peering at it.

We met in a roundabout way. I had an exhibition of collages at Cork Street Gallery, London, in 1996. There was quite a bit of Pop art referencing in the work and Peter's quite well known for that, too. I had a visitor's book and Peter signed it, saying that some of the works in my exhibition reminded him of his work, which was a big thrill.

Sometime later Peter got in touch about an exhibition he was putting on at Tate Liverpool, called About Collage, in 2001, and he wanted me to exhibit for it. So he came to my home in Fulham, south-west London, to see my work. I'd done a collage-oriented series comprising gold leaf on canvas and various images of people such as Dusty Springfield, Cliff Richard and Burt Lancaster, and we went with that.

We stayed in touch and that same year he became a Royal Academician, and invited me to come to the Royal Academy Schools and work alongside MA students, which opened me up to a whole different set of experiences, and I embarked on a course there [Johnson was also invited by Blake to exhibit at the RA Summer Exhibition, in 2001].

Eventually I went to see him and his wife Chrissie at his studio in Chiswick, west London. It's like a magician's lair; a trove of objects and collections of folk art and collage materials including the wax Sonny Liston model [seen on the Sgt Pepper's sleeve].

I view him as a godfather of Pop art. I've mentioned to him, too, that some of his work from the 1960s – images of smiling pop stars surrounded by bright coloured chevrons – is quite homoerotic; he found that quite amusing as he said that wasn't by intention.

It's rare for painters to have the level of involvement and interest he does in pop music – one of his best friends is Paul McCartney and he's worked with Paul Weller and Eric Clapton – so he is quite special in that way.

He is much more important in the fields he works in than I am in mine. I will never be a Sir Holly Johnson, or be a judge for a prize, as he has been; I'm more of an outsider.

By giving me these opportunities to widen my horizons and fulfil certain artist ambitions, he's been like an artistic Wizard of Oz for me. And that reboot has led me back to music; he's more important to me than he knows.

Sir Peter Blake, 82

A Pop artist, Blake is perhaps best known for his work designing album sleeves, including the Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', and Paul Weller's 'Stanley Road'. He lives in west London with his wife

Like a lot of famous singers, there's always been a frisson of glamour with Holly; he looks great in a suit and his sparkly diamante male Dorothy shoes, and he's quite flamboyant, which you can see in his music, too.

I saw his first art exhibition at a gallery in London about 18 years ago. I wrote in his comment book that I liked his work very much, as it reminded me of my own, and I left some criticism, too. It was flamboyant, lots of gold shapes covered in beads and a series of colourful collages which were similar in spirit to my early work in the mid-1950s.

I was curating a show in Tate Liverpool, in 2001, a big survey into the use of collage in professional work, such as Kurt Schwitters', along with outsider art: people who went to art school then became musicians but had now gone back to being artists; my room had paintings from Ian Dury, Paul McCartney and one by Holly, too. [Johnson had been due to start art college in 1983, when Frankie Goes to Hollywood was signed.]

I'd gone to his house, in Chelsea, met his partner and manager Wolfgang, and seen his range of work. At that point it was known that he was HIV positive, and surviving it with treatment, but he looked a little unwell, and I was worried for him. There was a rapport straight away, and I liked him: he had this gentle Liverpool voice – he actually grew up near Penny Lane, at a very rough time.

Holly thinks of himself as an outsider and me as the insider. But my background is as this weird, bastardised, half-trained graphic designer and half-trained painter: a maverick within the serious art world. What eminent painter would do a record cover? So I still feel that the art world doesn't take me seriously, and in many ways, I'm an outsider too.

I've mentioned to him how I didn't benefit greatly from the Sgt Pepper's album I designed: my agent signed away any royalties, which would have been nice to have had, and I wasn't allowed to use the imagery for many years. I think the Beatles never really appreciated what they got.

Talking about outsiders and insiders, I remember sharing this surreal taxi journey with Holly once, a few years ago, when we were both in Liverpool going to a private view. The cabbie recognised him just as a Frankie Goes to Hollywood was playing on the radio. Holly's brother is a cabbie in Liverpool and the driver was telling us how he knew him – and knew all about Holly and what he was up to now: he is still a big hero in Liverpool.

Johnson's new solo album, 'Europa', is out now. His UK solo tour, 'Unleashed from the Pleasuredome', runs from 19 October. For details: hollyjohnson.com

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