Q interview: Peter Blake

  • 9 December 2015

The Pop artist talks to our members' magazine, Art Quarterly, about painting a portrait of Helen Mirren, and explains why he prefers not to paint from life.

Peter Blake Photograph by Luke Andrew Walker

Peter Blake


Photograph by Luke Andrew Walker

I don’t tend to paint from life. I blame Helen Mirren for that. Very early on, when we were both young, I knew her and wanted to paint her. We made an arrangement that because it wasn’t a commission with her paying me, and because I wasn’t paying her to model, I’d paint two pictures, she would choose the one she wanted, and I’d keep the other.

It was such an intense business! It’s incredibly intimate painting a portrait from life. You’re face to face with someone, and I just couldn’t deal with it. I’m not a Lucian Freud or a Frank Auerbach.

In the end, because she was so busy, we only had two sessions – I had an hour and a half to work on each one – so they turned out quite similar, just heads, but from slightly different angles.

People don’t have time to sit, so now I take photographs of exactly how I want them to be and work from those. I take them quite casually. I don’t have a tripod or lights, so people are usually pretty relaxed. Sometimes the photographs are good enough to exist as portraits in themselves, but really they’re just part of the process. It takes me a long time. Not that my pictures are ever really finished.

Sometimes a portrait can take 30 years, like the ones of Paul Smith and his wife, Pauline [Denyer]. Every time I tried to finish them, something else would come up, but they’re finally ready for the show I’m having now [the first in his long career to be devoted to his portraiture]. So although not started recently, they are new pictures in a way.

It’s like the painting I did of Ophelia [the character in Hamlet]. I first showed that in a very early state in 1977 and then, over a period of 15 years, I exhibited it I think six times. I’ve never tried to explain it, but anyone who saw all six shows would have seen its progress, seen it grow up. Usually it’s some thing like the final deadline for a show that makes you bring something together. Otherwise, I’d go on forever.

A lot of the portraits I’ve painted have been double portraits. I’ve liked the ones I’ve done of Leslie and Clodagh Waddington; and Peter Palumbo and his wife, Hayat. And I was very pleased with the one of Simon Sainsbury and his partner, Stewart Grimshaw, in their garden. Simon didn’t much like it at the time. He felt it just wasn’t like him. But looking back now – he died in 2006 – what I painted was very much like he became. Often, I think, people don’t really know what they look like; they don’t see themselves as they are, so if you paint them as you see them, they don’t necessarily recognise that view of themselves. A good portrait will pick up something they don’t see in themselves, that they don’t see in the mirror.

There was one I did of the Everly Brothers for a record cover. At the time, Don Everly was quite broadfaced, quite fat. I made him a bit thinner, took a quarter of an inch off each side of his face and slimmed him down. But even so, when he saw himself in the painting, I think he realised he was fatter than he thought he was. They decided not to use it as a record cover.

So I have had work rejected. Oddly enough, when Roy Strong was at the National Portrait Gallery in the late 1960s, he put me forward to do a new portrait of the Queen, which was very brave of him. But she declined and chose Annigoni [who had painted her in 1956] to paint her a second time. Still, at least I was sort of semi-commissioned.

I have painted the Queen twice, though, from photographs. For the Golden Jubilee in 2002, the Royal Academy had a big party, and I painted a portrait based on a photograph by Lichfield to go on the programme. And then 10 years later, I painted her again for the Diamond Jubilee, from a photograph by John Swannell, for the cover of the Radio Times. I was really pleased with both of them because she looks as she looks, but very sympathetic.

I paint people as honestly as I can. If they’ve got a blemish I’ll put it in. I don’t know whether I’ve become more obsessed, but maybe with optics my eyes have become clearer. And my hand is still very steady. So, in a way, the paintings I’m doing now are more realistic than my earlier pieces. The likeness has to be the main thing.

Peter Blake: Portraits and People is at Waddington Custot Galleries, 11 Cork Street, London W1; to 30 January 2016. Free to all.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's winter 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

Tags: Art Quarterly