My life in travel: Peter Blake, artist
The only time I've sat on a beach was in 1960
Saturday 04 June 2011
First holiday memory?
A day trip to Margate when I was three with my mother, which I remember from a photo of us on the beach. The next time I went away was after the war, on a cycling holiday with my dad, staying in youth hostels around the Thames Valley and Kent.
In 1956, I won the Leverhulme scholarship to study popular art, which let me travel the world. I had to live on £500 for a year and some truly extraordinary things happened. I travelled with an Italian circus, saw the jazz pianist Bud Powell play in Paris, and witnessed wrestling matches and a bullfight. Even the sandwiches seemed exciting.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
London. I've lived here since 1953 when I started at the Royal College of Art and now I call Chiswick home, but it still gives me a feeling of joy, waking up on a Sunday morning and going to the West End for an exhibition.
What have you learnt from your travels?
I've learnt about different courtesies and customs. In the 1990s, the British Council took me on a world tour with my series of screenprints Alphabet. One night in Japan, we had a drinks party before dinner. It went on for about two hours. Eventually, I got tired and sat down. Instantly everybody sat down for dinner; they had been waiting for me to go first. You're also not supposed to blow your nose there.
Ideal travelling companion?
My wife. She looks after me, I'm in love with her and she's fun.
Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?
Culture vulture. The only time I've ever sat on a beach was in St Ives in 1960, and even then I kept all my clothes on. Some of my greatest memories have come from visiting museums in foreign places. The first time I visited the Prado gallery in Madrid was in 1956. At the time English galleries didn't have cafés. I got there early and the place was deserted. I had a coffee and then went to see my favourite painting, Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. A perfect moment.
Greatest travel luxury?
My own soap. It's a little bit of home, a little bit of consistency and keeps me comfortable. I've always done it for the last 10 years.
I used to take Ulysses by James Joyce away on a two-week break, but I've never finished it. The furthest I've got is about two-thirds in. Another week and I'm sure I could get there. Other things I read on a short flight are The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, which I'm working on an illustration series for.
Better to travel or arrive?
Arrive. I remember landing in Hong Kong 20 years ago; I was taken to a restaurant and then a night market – it was quite a culture shock.
Worst travel experience?
When I travelled to Los Angeles in 1963. All our money was stolen and then Kennedy was shot. On the actual day, I was in one of the big film lots at Universal Studios, sitting on the bed from Cleopatra drawing the props. I didn't have a watch on. Suddenly I realised I'd been locked in for hours. My then father-in-law had forgotten about me when the assassination happened. The trip became pretty difficult after that.
A place in New York I stayed at in the Sixties. It was a complete doss-house just round the corner from Jack Dempsey's bar. It cost $2 a night, there was no carpet, the water was cold, and I'm sure there were cockroaches too.
The Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. When my daughter was younger, she ordered spaghetti bolognese from room service and the waiter delivered it on a silver platter. I also like L'Hotel, which is also in Paris and where Oscar Wilde is said to have died.
I was staying with David Hockney at his beach house in Malibu. One night we drove to his other place in the Hollywood Hills for dinner, and he'd made a music tape that was perfectly synchronised for the journey. We left the house and Wagner was playing, then as we went up into the hills and the sun was setting, Elgar started to play.
Best meal abroad?
Noma in Copenhagen. I went there for a meal without knowing it's meant to be one of the best restaurants in the world. I had lots of different small Danish-style fish and meat dishes.
India. I've been a lot of other places, but I've never been there – it always looks so wonderful in films and on television.
New York. It's always exciting. I was over there a month ago, and I was taken to see an art collection at the Museum of Modern Art which I wasn't expecting. We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the sculpture garden, which was pretty extraordinary.
Perhaps Sicily. I'm getting a bit older now, so I think my long-haul days might be over, but some friends have talked about a holiday to Italy in a couple of weeks.
Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself is at the Holburne Museum in Bath until 4 September ( holburne.org).
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