Fine etchings might seem a far cry from his iconic pop-art record cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the latest works by London-based artist Peter Blake still embrace the circus sideshow spirit reminiscent of that seminal 1960s creation. But first, let’s take a step back to a portfolio of wood engravings he produced between 1974 and 1978. Here we have all the fun of the fair – a “Fat Boy” bulging out of his overalls, a bearded lady (third picture), a highly decorated tattooed man and a top-hatted giant looking the epitome of a fairground showman – all depicted in intricate detail. Now a new exhibition curated by Blake will display this portfolio for the first time in tandem with photographs, studies and drawings of popular entertainment ephemera loaned from his personal archive, along with the original wood blocks used to print the works. And while the portfolio itself is not for sale, a number of unframed, signed artist’s proofs (10 of each image; £1,200-£1,800) are available for fans to buy.
What will thrill collectors perhaps even more are three completely new etchings. This is the first time in more than two decades that Blake has worked with etchings, giving his favourite theme a wonderfully fresh perspective. Elvis Two Rivers (edition of 30; £1,080) offers a softer, more compassionate approach to a wrestler’s body art, while a subversive take on midcentury children’s book illustrations is suggested by the tattooed girl in Liberty Beauty Rose (edition of 30; £1,080, first picture). Reverend Ricky Wreck (edition of 30; £1,080) is the third new etching and is also signed by the artist.
The opportunity to explore background material that inspired the Side-Show series – postcards, magazines, posters and other ephemera (second picture) – is a particular treat for admirers of the pop artist’s work. “When I was a kid these were my interests – the fairgrounds, circuses, rock ’n’ roll,” says Blake. “At a certain point in making art, when I had to make a decision about what to do, I thought ‘be autobiographical’. Well, it wasn’t that conscious… but the work became very autobiographical and about popular culture and that’s what became pop art.”
“My interest in sideshows comes from the fact that all people are different and no one is better than anyone else,” he tells me. “There is no standard. Certain features are decided to be handsome, others not – and, of course, these change over time. I’m interested in the differences between people and that no matter what they look like, they are all beautiful.”
When asked about his new work, he says: “Making etchings comes out of a project I’m working on, which is based on a quote from Under Milk Wood – ‘from one of the finger-bowls a primrose grows’. My plan is to make the image of a primrose in as many different media as I possibly can: drawing, watercolour, lithograph, photograph, etc. One of them is an etching, and this has led to the making of three new ones. I’m not known as an etcher, but it’s a medium I love.” Collectors will surely agree.