Portraiture has been prevalent in Peter Blake’s work since the late 1940s. From his images of pop culture icons such as Marylin Monroe, Bridgette Bardoe and Elvis Presley to the imagined characters of his own mind, Blake has always portrayed a diversity of individuals at face value.
As the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s portraiture, Portraits and People will feature a significant group of new works alongside earlier paintings which have never been previously exhibited, all hand selected by the artist. Spanning across images of past portrait commissions of notable friends and patrons, Blake’s choices reveal his enduring fascination with people, their personalities and eccentricities.
Inspired by the common question asked by taxi drivers on discovering Blake is an artist – “What do you paint? Landscapes, portraits or still lifes?” the exhibition will offer a unique opportunity to view commissioned portraits and gifts which have hung in private collections and rarely been seen. On show for the first time is a portrait of one of Blake’s closest friends, and his dealer since the sixties, Leslie Waddington, the fashion designer Paul Smith and two portraits of actor Helen Mirren, who sat for Blake in the early eighties whilst starring in Cleopatra. Other works loaned from private collections include a portrait of the musician Ian Dury, who was taught by the artist in the sixties and a double portrait of the late British art collector Simon Sainsbury and his partner Stewart Grimshaw.
Previous patrons of Blakes works will also recognise his continual exploration of wrestlers, a major motif throughout his career, “I loved it [wrestling] immediately. I loved the theatre, the fantasy and the idea of good versus evil.”
He began his first series of wrestlers in 1961 using publicity shots from sports magazines and giving each an invented, heroic personal history. The watercolours in Portraits and People introduce ten new characters to the theatre and spectacle of wrestling, including Krankie the Klown (2015) and Madam X (2015). Blake’s portraits of female wrestlers nod to his earlier images of pin-up girls and Hollywood sex symbols. A set of ten oil paintings focus solely on female wrestlers; alluring in their beauty but still with a toughness and strength that pushes traditional gender boundaries.