With Sir Peter Blake's private collections of art curios, taxidermy and memorabilia about to go on display at the Museum of Everything, he takes Helen Sumpter on a magical mystery tour.
Behind a pair of anonymous gates in west London, genial British pop art pioneer Sir Peter Blake is taking me on a tour of his expansive two-floor studio. For anyone with even a slight interest in the visual aesthetic of vintage circuses and fairgrounds, music memorabilia, Victorian taxidermy, folk art or sporting and theatrical curios, this is the equivalent of being a kid in a candy shop. The space is stuffed with art, found objects and ephemera that Blake has collected, categorised and arranged, for his own pleasure, over his 60-year career.
'So this is all Elvis stuff - one of my little put-together museums', he explains, 'which includes an Elvis-branded condom; “Elvis” written on a grain of rice; signed photos and three tickets for the next concert Elvis would have done, if he hadn't died. This next room has a collection of dolls - there's some Aunt Sally heads and cloth dolls by the English designer Norah Wellings, with faces all based on Shirley Temple. And this room is basically all collage - here's a framed collection of lipstick kisses by an artist called David Inshaw. I think that they might have been all the girls that he had affairs with.' Elsewhere there's a full-size waxwork of boxer Sonny Liston, the shoes worn by the famous Victorian dwarf General Tom Thumb and Blake's own work, including an entire exhibition he is preparing for Waddington Galleries in November, for which he is paying homage to ten artists who have inspired him, including Joseph Cornell and Kurt Schwitters.
'I began my collecting when I started in the Junior Art Department at Gravesend School of Art when I was 14. There was a junkyard next to the station and on my first visit I bought a set of leather-bound Shakespeare, a papier maché tray and a painting of the Queen Mary that happened to be a kind of outsider art, and it all started from there.'
Although Blake's collections were never created for public display, for the first time a significant proportion of them will be going on show as part of a new exhibition ('Exhibition #3'), curated with James Brett at Primrose Hill's Museum of Everything. It's a good pairing. The stealth hit from last year's Frieze Art Fair month, the first Museum of Everything exhibition, which Blake contributed to, was inspired by Brett's fascination with extraordinary artworks and objects, all created in private by untrained individuals, working outside the mainstream. This time the idea of non-traditional art is being extended to include not only Blake's collections but other categories and collections of self-taught creativity that share similar themes and a similar aesthetic.
One such example is Potter's Museum of Curiosity. Begun in 1861 by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, the final collection amounted to 6,000 stuffed animals, many arranged in elaborate and quirky tableaux, such as 'The Guinea Pigs' Cricket Match' featuring 34 guinea pigs in a country cricket game and school classroom of rabbits. The collection was split up and sold at auction in 2003 but James Brett is trying to borrow back as many of the major pieces as possible for this show. Damien Hirst will be among those lending works and two will be coming from Blake, who attended the sale. 'I first came across the collection by chance when I was out cycling as a teenager and it was the most extraordinary thing. At the auction I sat with David Bailey for a lot of the time. He bought some skulls and Harry Hill was also there, I think he bought the world's smallest dog.'
Punch and Judy puppetry, the circus and the fairground are other potential themes that are emerging for the exhibition and elements of Carter's Steam Fair (of which both Blake and Brett are fans) may also be incorporated into the final selection.
At the age of 78, Blake shows no sign of slowing down, mentioning current projects as diverse as a painting commission for the Knight Bachelors' chapel in St Paul's Cathedral and a collaboration on a garden for next year's Chelsea Flower Show, for the British Heart Foundation. But for the next few weeks he'll be concentrating on the Museum of Everything. 'The exhibition is still evolving so it might go off in all different directions before it opens. In a way it's a conceptual art piece, we're just not quite sure what the concept is yet. But what we do know is that people will walk around and there will be things to look at and it probably won't be what anyone expects'.
'Exhibition #3' is open from October 13-December 24 2010 at the Museum of Everything.