The world's first and only British Pop Art Bentley, this unique Continental GT V8 S Convertible is the result of a collaboration between Bentley Motors and the godfather of British Pop Art, Sir Peter Blake,2016 Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible  Chassis no. SCBGE23W6GC058251

Pop the hood

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 22

Pop the hood

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 22

Bags, badges, Beatles – and now a Bentley. Peter Blake tells Raffaella Barker why he gave the famous marque a makeover

Sir Peter Blake RA, one of Britain's most famous artists – indeed, the living embodiment of a national treasure – has created a huge body of work since he graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1956. In addition to his paintings and prints, he has designed album covers (including, most famously, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), bags and badges, a ferry across the Mersey and a BA tail wing. But he hasn't designed a Bentley before ... When Bentley Motors approached him to customize a car to be auctioned by Bonhams at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in aid of Care2Save Charitable Trust, at first Blake thought he was not up to the task.

As he says, "You see, it's a beautiful car. Why would I want to mess it up?" His view, which doubtlessly warmed the hearts of its makers, is that the car – a Bentley Continental GT V8 S Convertible – is "a perfect object. I wanted to keep its dignity." But once he saw the possibilities, his imagination took flight: "It's a classic of British design and the car above all others that my father adored. He admired the quality and the finish."

What Blake has done – rather brilliantly – is to combine motifs from his work, such as a heart, and use his palette of colors to enhance the motor. Initially, he says, he had a band of images around the car's body, "but as we worked on it more and more, we simplified and simplified, until the color took over. We used the interior as well – all the seats are a different color. I tried to keep the lines of the car, but also make it decorated."

When the car was unveiled at Bonhams' New Bond Street HQ in April, applause broke out around the room and guests queued to join Blake at the wheel – and to register their interest in acquiring the world's first Pop Art Bentley.

When I went to interview him the following week at his gallery, which was once Isleworth Film Studios, the 83-year-old artist was hard at work, surrounded by a collection of prints and print-making blocks, a Warhol poster on the wall, a patchwork rug and a rocking chair by the fireplace. "It's a retirement home joke," he says with a deadpan expression. "The fireplace isn't even real."

The gallery also has a print studio, so it is a natural home for an artist who all his life has split his work successfully between fine art and the applied arts. He remembers, "I trained as a graphic designer at art school, but when I applied to the Royal College, I got a place as a painter." Since then he has worked consistently as both: "I approach both disciplines with the same attitude – I treat them with the same respect and do both equally."

He considers himself both a rogue fine artist and a rogue graphic designer, and has built a career out of being a maverick: "In the 1970s I found if I could do a bit of teaching, a bit of graphic work and a bit of painting, I could be independent of everything. I didn't have to belong."

Despite this, Blake (knighted in 2002 for his services to British art) is undoubtedly a very British brand. "I am patriotic," he affirms, unwrapping a Tunnock's Teacake for elevenses, "and of course Pop Art is a brand and I have the brand of longevity – the fact that I am still working gets me work," his eyes sparkle.

Patriotism, the Union Jack, hearts, rainbows, collage and color have helped define his work since the Sixties. At the end of that decade, there was an exodus of artists from London and Blake headed west to found an artistic community. "It was the Seventies, we all did it. Howard Hodgkin and Joe Tilson became completely self-sufficient. Joe even grew wheat to make bread."

Blake's group, the Brotherhood of Ruralists, established themselves near Bath, where he bought an old railway station. "It was an idyllic existence. We grew vegetables and had chickens, and started the Looking Glass School, where our children went – there were never more than ten pupils."

They were halcyon days. "I went up to London to the Royal College to give tutorials," he recalls. "In those days you could live on a couple of days teaching." Blake used credit he had at Mr Chow's in Knightsbridge to take all his students – one of whom was the musician Ian Dury – out to lunch. He recalls, "We had appreciated everything so much, coming into the art world in the period just after the war. Everything seemed possible." Always possessed of a profoundly egalitarian sensibility, in 1984 for his exhibition at the Tate Gallery he gave away thousands of reproductions of his print The Owl and The Pussycat. "I signed 12,500, I think, in the end," he reflects. "I've always tried to have pieces that anyone, even a school kid, could buy."

A collector himself from the age of 13, his first treasures were a set of Shakespeare's plays, a papier-mâché tray and a painting of the Queen Mary. Those themes – literature, insider art and craft – are all still evident in his work.

His new project, Ways of Making, is inspired by a phrase from James Joyce's Ulysses: 'From a finger bowl a primrose grows'. "I noticed a primrose in a bowl on my desk and decided to create the image in every medium I can think of." So far he has photographed the flower 30 times, and is ready to embark on printing. "I can't quote it, but I carry it in my head," he says.

Just before lunch on a cloudless day, Blake is a vibrant poster boy for the British Artist at work. Still utterly engrossed in his work, he talks without undue emotion of a final piece. "I do have a last project in mind. I don't want to sound macabre, but I've got a huge canvas with a beautiful frame, and I've always wanted to do an allegory. There'll be a lake with a galleon, there's always a naked couple in an allegory, and then there will be the owl and the pussycat."

He notices my baffled look and leans forward to confide: "Nothing needs to make sense, you know. People can make up their own stories." Sir Peter Blake has certainly done that.

Raffaella Barker's most recent novel, From a Distance (2014), is about a post-war artists' colony in St Ives.

Watch Sir Peter Blake describe his car at the Bentley factory
at bonhams.com/blakesbentley

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