Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Peter Blake, a founder of pop art and the designer of the Sergeant Pepper cover

'I'm a half-taught commercial artist'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Peter Blake, 77, designed the cover of the Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. He featured in the first issue of The Sunday Times Magazine in 1962 and had a Tate retrospective in 1983. He has designed fabrics for Stella McCartney. 'Peter Blake: One Man Show' by Marco Livingstone is just out.

I did a drawing of Miss Gaspar, the headmistress of the Maypole School in Dartford Heath, Kent, chasing me with a cane. In fact, she was kindly and I don't think she had a cane and I probably got the idea from a comic. My sister was five and I was seven when we were evacuated, the day after war was declared, to Helions Bumpstead, the point where Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. My mother and father stayed in Dartford.

I went to the village school for three years. I took the exam for the Kent grammar school while I was there; both my sister and brother passed but I failed and came back to Dartford. I went to Dartford West Central, a secondary modern, and was evacuated to Worcester, where I went to an even rougher secondary modern, where some of the kids were so poor they came to school without shoes.

At the end of the year, I came back to Dartford West Central. This was the first time I remember doing art at school; the head, Mr Snow, came into the class and praised what I had done. I started copying the illustrations in the Daily Express road map, and at Christmas I would decorate the neighbours' windows. At 14, I got a place at Gravesend Technical College. At the interview, they said: "If you want to try the art department, it's just round the corner." For three years, I went to the technical and art parts of the school and then did the "intermediate" course in the art department, the equivalent of a foundation year. I was taught the rudiments of wood carving, stone carving, life drawing and silversmithing. My special craft was Roman lettering.

One of the teachers said I would never make a living as a painter, so I did the commercial art course. At the end of the first year, one of the teachers thought I should try the Royal College of Art. I sent a painting of my sister and the RCA director accepted me. I'm a half-taught commercial artist!

I did my national service and went to the RCA for three years. The first year, you had to work from life models. It was a good discipline. You were very "taught" – there was always a teacher in the room to demonstrate what you might have done. I discovered the "composition" or "general painting" room and set up camp in a little corner. I started to paint pictures such as Children Reading Comics which became early precursors of pop art. I got a first-class diploma. For a year, I had a scholarship to travel in Europe. As well as making a serious study of art history, I was studying popular art in folk museums. I looked at barge paintings; I would go to wrestling matches and pick cigarette packets up from the floor; I spent three days in a circus. We went to find Picasso but he didn't come to that particular restaurant that day.