The exhibition will include work made while a student at the Royal College of Art, London, in the 1940s to watercolours painted in 2018. All works are from the artist’s own private collection and will be exhibited for the first time.
Although rarely shown, Blake’s drawings have been and continue to be central to his creative output and offer a window into his life from an informal and intimate viewpoint. The drawings vary widely in subject; from portraits of Chrissy, his wife, to the Alexander Calder sculpture at La Colombe d’Or, to simple sketched line drawings, made at quiet moments to pass the time or to document events such as a ‘Dr Death’ wrestling match on Edgware Road or The Who in concert. Often drawings were made on whatever was closest to hand, a diary page or hotel notepaper. Most include a caption, inscribed in Blake’s familiar handwriting, providing context and often adding humour, such as – ‘First morning in LA at David Hockey’s house – hungover – the pen is drawing by itself. Howard and David at the bank’.
The earliest drawings in the exhibition are those that have survived from Blake’s time as a student at Gravesend School of Art. ‘The Chapel on the Walls, Wareham’ (c.1945) is a copy of a photograph, in pen and ink, tentative concentration is evident in the careful line. Works from the 1940s and 1950s reveal an artist finding and developing his distinctive artistic language. From the 1950s, Blake’s signature graphic style is emerging.
His sketchbook accompanied him when Blake was given a Leverhulme Research Award (1956–7) and travelled in Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Italy. During this time, he would often make informal drawings, not of traditional tourist vistas but of common place objects, coffee cups or ashtrays, particularly noting distinct typography. This habit of documenting his trips continued on future trips to Paris, Tokyo and Los Angeles.
In his drawings from the 1960s, colour begins to permeate, especially those drawings from his American visit. Works such as ‘Ted Haworth’s Oscar’ (1963) and ‘Bronze figures of women on a bench, L.A.’ (1963) accentuate stylised figures with expressive use of bright, acid colours. Some works have been made specially for this exhibition, Blake terms these his Party Watercolours, an array of colour and celebration depicting imaginary parties with guests dancing and laughing alongside a mass of balloons, vying for attention in a collage of chaos. Portraits of party guests are infused with the same celebratory atmosphere, the picture plane broken with falling, colourful confetti.
This exhibition is a joyful look at the career of one of Britain’s best loved artists through his own personal collection of works on paper, accumulated throughout his career.