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Peter Blake was among the premier exponents of the pop art movement of the 1960s, predating even Andy Warhol with collages and silk screens that borrowed, reconfigured, and reinvented some of the most iconic images in contemporary culture. In discussions of pop music, however, he is most legendary for arguably the most recognizable and acclaimed record cover in the annals of the form — the Beatles' 1967 landmark Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Born in Kent, England, on June 25, 1932, Blake studied at the Gravesend School of Art before earning acceptance to London's prestigious Royal Academy of Art, where he studied alongside David Hockney. Blake's early work was often explicitly autobiographical, filled with images of movie stars, comic strip characters, and circus performers, and art historians now date the beginning of the pop art movement to his work of the early '50s. His key early works include 1954's "Children Reading Comics" and the following year's "Loelia, the World's Most Tattooed Lady," painted on an unfinished plank of wood to closely resemble the fairground art from which it drew inspiration.
Upon graduating in 1956, Blake traveled Europe on a Leverhulme Research grant, producing paintings and collages featuring American rock & roll sensations like Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. His travels later inspired "Postcards," a series of works on the theme of Latin lovers. His work soon began incorporating images from consumer packaging, and his 1962 painting "Captain Webb Matchbox" predated Warhol's silkscreens depicting Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes by several years. Also in 1962, Blake was spotlighted in director Ken Russell's much-discussed BBC film Pop Goes the Easel, and a year later mounted his first solo art show at London's Portal Gallery. He also became an art teacher, tutoring the young Ian Dury more than a decade before he achieved musical recognition on the Stiff label; Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger was among Blake's neighbors as well. Despite growing fame and acclaim within the art world, however, he remained fairly unknown to the public at large — that is, until his art entered the homes of millions worldwide via 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Although the Beatles had already commissioned a cover by the Dutch art collective the Fool, Blake's gallery dealer, Robert Fraser, convinced Paul McCartney to recruit a professional artist instead. Expanding upon the record's central theme, that of the Beatles as another band, Blake envisioned the crowd that might gather to hear the group perform, and instructed the group to make a list of the people they'd most like in attendance at an imaginary concert. Everyone from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler was considered, but in the end, film stars, poets, writers, Eastern gurus, and other musicians constituted the majority of the life-size images. Wax Beatles sculptures, a palm tree, a guitar made of hyacinths, a cloth doll clad in a sweater knit with the phrase "Welcome the Rolling Stones, Good Guys," and other assorted ephemera completed the scene, and with photographer Michael Cooper behind the camera, the shoot commenced on March 30, 1967. Blake was paid 200 pounds for his efforts, and Fraser soon signed away the copyright; nevertheless, the finished cover endures as probably the most imitated and recognized image in all of pop music, and remains a pivotal artifact of the Summer of Love.
Although Blake was subsequently flooded with offers to design other album sleeves, he declined virtually all requests. In 1969 he enjoyed his first major retrospective at Bristol's City Art Gallery; a second retrospective toured Amsterdam, Hamburg, Brussels, and Arnhem four years later. Blake and his wife, artist Jann Haworth, moved in 1975 to England's west country to co-found the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group of seven painters who worked and holidayed together, drawing common inspiration from the British countryside; their first joint exhibition followed at the 1976 Royal Academy summer show. A 1977 solo exhibit at London's Waddington and Tooth galleries anticipated his full-time return to the city by two years; in the interim, Blake designed the cover for Roger McGough's 1978 album Summer with Monika, and three years later was commissioned to create the artwork adorning the Who's Face Dances. A 1983 retrospective at London's Tate Gallery later traveled to Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, and during the mid-'80s, he also agreed to design the sleeve for Band Aid's charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" as well as the Live Aid charity concert poster.
In 1991 Blake unveiled "The Alphabet," a series of 26 screenprints, one for each letter of the alphabet, cataloging his various artistic obsessions, among them boxers, clowns, dwarfs, and, of course, the Beatles. His cover for Paul Weller's Stanley Road followed in 1995. For Blake's 2000 Liverpool exhibition "About Collage," he asked McCartney to create a piece of music about the city; the resulting album, Liverpool Sound Collage, incorporated elements of unreleased Beatles tracks as well as contributions from Super Furry Animals and producer Youth. In 2001, Blake painted the cover for Brand New Boots and Panties: Tribute to Ian Dury, celebrating the life of music of his former art student, who died the previous year. Blake was knighted in 2002.