Nick Hackworth

Peter Blake: Commercial Art, London Institute Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Aside from his recent cameo role as a wizard in a Harry Potter film, Professor Sir Peter Blake RA, to give him his full title, is best known as one of the leading figures in the British Pop Art movement of the 1960s. His work is among the most representative and evocative of the period; Blake, now 71, was as at home with the culture of his time, as with a pair of warm slippers.

Where many Pop artists critiqued their culture, Blake illustrated it. He produced colourful paintings, collages, sculptures and drawings that were contemporary but nice, safe and unremarkable — and a world away from the uncompromising American Pop Art of the period.

He has maintained a similar style and strategy ever since, apart from a whimsical, rustic, fairy-painting phase, and so his aesthetic has once again, thanks to our retro-obsessed culture, become acceptably fashionable.

That comfortable retro appeal shines through in this smallish retrospective of Blake’s commercial work from 1960 to the present, which will be followed immediately in mid-September by an exhibition of his sculptural work.

As well as assimilating elements of popular culture into his fine-art work, Blake added to it directly through the quantity of posters, album, book and magazine covers he produced, which are here on display.

Blake’s most famous work, in any genre, is the cover for The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a winning, zeitgeist-capturing — and creating — collage of famous faces (though one later trumped by Richard Hamilton’s blank design for The Beatles’ White Album). The collage is Blake’s medium par excellence. It has allowed him, throughout his career, to simply, and literally, stick his favourite elements from different periods together.

Typically, images of flock wallpaper and archaic bric-a-brac sit next to pictures of pop and film icons, with bright stars, hearts and bands of colour. The wizardly results are to be seen in works that range from early magazine covers to a recent Paul Weller album cover and a collaged crowd scene created for the Foreign Office to commemorate the millennium (Class of 2000).

Gentle, colourful and slightly sickly sweet, Blake’s style helped define his period. After all, the Sixties weren’t really that exciting.

Until 11 September