At the age of 75, Sir Peter Blake, ‘the godfather of British Pop Art’ announced that he had entered his ‘late period’, a term usually used by critics after painters have died. “Artists go a bit crazy, so I gave myself the licence to do that,” he says.Now he’s 90, so you might say he’s in his ‘late, late’ period: his most recent body of work, some of which is being shown for the first time over the summer at Farleys House and Gallery, sounds like he’s getting good value from that licence. “It’s called Joseph Cornell’s Holiday,” he tells me, revealing that the idea came to him after attending an exhibition about the American ‘shadow-box’ artist, Wanderlust, at the Royal Academy, in 2015.
There were two elements of Cornell’s life that Blake wanted to change, for the better. The first was that “he loved the idea of travelling, and Europe, but never ventured far from his home on Long Island” (the artist was devoted to his mother and had to take care of his disabled brother). And then “he fell in love constantly with women… but never consummated a relationship. He died a virgin.”So Blake is posthumously treating Cornell, in this series of artworks, to everything he missed while alive: “he meets lots of women all the time, and has lots of affairs, all around Europe.”
Back in the sixties, the British surrealist Roland Penrose, the co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, acted as something of a ‘mentor’ to Blake and the generation of young artists involved in the British pop art movement. “I went to their [Penrose and his photographer wife Lee Miller’s] flat in Kensington a number of times,” he says, “and saw their amazing collection of Picassos and Dalis, wonderful pictures. I’d say he was a friend.”Blake didn’t, however, visit the couple’s Sussex residence in Chiddingly until recently, and it was after that visit he decided, with the collaboration of Roland’s son Antony Penrose, to make part of the Joseph Cornell series site-specific to Farley Farm, which now has an exhibition space. “A lot of the surrealists visited Roland and Lee in Sussex, as did Picasso, and were photographed by Lee Miller, and what I’ve done is a kind of sub-story imagining Cornell visiting Farley Farm, and meeting them.”
Cornell, it so happens, already knew Lee Miller, who also hailed from New York State, and, among the twenty or so paintings in the exhibition, “there’s an image of him, at Farley Farm, holding a collage with the image that Lee Miller took of him when he was a young man.” Had the artist ever made it to Europe, Blake reckons Cornell would have jumped at the chance to make a real visit to Farley Farm. “Lee was very beautiful,” he concludes. “I’m absolutely convinced she was one of the many women he fell in love with”.
Image © Peter Blake, 2019. All rights reserved
Day Trip to Farley Farm, Sundays 9th June to 4th August. Farleys House and Gallery, Muddles Green, Chiddingly