Peter Blake's 'He's a Fan' campaign portrait by Mary McCartney
'I hope it doesn't cause a traffic jam,' quips the Godfather of Pop Art, Sir Peter Blake, speaking about his latest bespoke artwork for Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London. Measuring a whopping 64 metres long by 25 metres high (the equivalent size of 38 double-decker buses), Our Fans is a collage of nearly 100 of London's most prominent people, from Bryan Ferry and Helen Mirren to Paul McCartney. And it's entirely apt that McCartney (and fellow Beatles' bandmate Ringo Starr) should feature: the collage crowd scene makes a nod to one of Blake's most iconic artworks, the Beatles' 1967 Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
The fact that it's a collage is no coincidence, either. The Royal College of Art graduate, who switched to a painting diploma course halfway through studying graphic design, first came across the medium when he discovered the work of German artist Kurt Schwitters in the 1950s. Since then, collage has become his trademark format and one that he has returned to time and again over the years.
Blake's design for the Beatles' eighth album, 1967
Almost from the get-go, Blake was known for combining images from pop culture with fine art and was seen as a significant figure in the emerging British pop art movement. In 1961, his work was displayed in a Young Contemporaries exhibition alongside artists including David Hockney and RB Kitaj; a year later, his first solo show opened at the Portal Gallery in London. His output of paintings, sculptures, engravings and prints is prolific and, as Our Fans demonstrates, he still gains huge enjoyment from creating cut-out collages. Here, we talk to Blake to find out more about the project.
How was the list of people who feature in Our Fans compiled?
It's a crowd of people – actors, musicians, dancers, designers – who all happen to be fans of Mandarin Oriental. Many of them have featured in the 'He's a Fan/She's a Fan' campaign and others have been added in. Hopefully, people passing by will try to spot celebrities they recognise.
The artist in his London studio
What was the inspiration behind the piece?
Some of my first works were collages of crowds of people; this piece is in the spirit of the 1967 Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. In fact, that wasn't a collage in the same sense as this. That one was built up as a life size artwork in which each head was cut out. Then it was photographed and shrunk down to 12 inches square.
Was it tricky to get the composition right?
I'm pretty good at placing people now. I think about the lines to follow; for instance, where the shoulders should go and juxtaposing colours. I'm designing and positioning the whole time. Some of the images are only headshots, so they all went in the back row; the full-length images in the front row. The people sitting down, such as Whoopi Goldberg, work especially well because they look like they are on the balcony of the building.
With fan campaign photographer Mary McCartney
What was the design process behind it?
One of my processes is to play a game of illusion. In the past, something might have been painted to look like a collage with a trompe l'oeil effect. With a collage, the aim is to try to create the same illusion by making it look like a painting. Often when I'm working on a collage, I cut images out using scissors or a scalpel (you need to have a good eye) and then stick them down, but for the Mandarin Oriental project I worked with a computer operator. All the images were sent through as Jpegs, he cut them out on the computer, and then we worked on the placement of them together. It's a much easier way of moving things around and making adjustments.
How long did it take you to complete?
It took about 60 hours altogether. We worked on it for five days, and then later we went back and made a few changes.
Is it the largest artwork you've ever made?
It's certainly the largest piece of this kind. In 2013, I did a similar collage for Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, when the hotel was celebrating its 50th anniversary. It featured images of 26 of the Group's celebrity fans taken by photographer Mary McCartney, but that was around 12 metres in length. I took all the imagery and then contrived to put a fan into everyone's hand. Also, last year I designed the Dazzle Ferry for Tate Liverpool as part of their World War One Centenary Art Commissions, and that was 46 metres long. This artwork is huge in comparison – 64 metres long. But I worked on a small scale and then the collage was scaled up to an enormous size.
'Peter Blake: Alphabets, Letters & Numbers' at the De La Warr Pavilion
What did you like most about being involved in this project?
It's very different from my usual way of working. A collage is time-consuming and laborious and everything has to be cut out, but for this artwork it was more a matter of arranging the figures and making them work together. Making sure no one has a cut-off shoulder or missing legs – that's the skill of it. It was an amazing project to work on.
What else have you been working on recently?
Until the end of November, I've got an exhibition, Peter Blake: Alphabets, Letters & Numbers, of three of my print series at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea [East Sussex]. In the last year, I have also decorated a Bentley Continental GT convertible for a charity auction – I put a heart on the bonnet.
And your current project?
I'm working on a series of collages based on a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, called Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust. Cornell was a 20th-century artist who lived and worked in New York. He never travelled, but knew all about Europe and loved it, so I thought I'd send him on a posthumous holiday. He was rather a morose man, so I'd like him to have a wonderful time.
''Appropriated Alphabet 12' (left) and 'Appropriated Alphabet 7' by Peter Blake
Can you tell us more about the series?
The first piece is called Fancy Dress Ball. I sourced a postcard image of the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, which I blew up. I'm now arranging all the figures. There's another one, set in Vienna, called Blind Man's Bluff – you can see the game being played in the picture – and a third depicting a flea market in Paris. The series isn't a job as such, although the pieces may end up becoming prints. I do a lot of applied art as well as fine art, but collage is always there. It's something I do constantly.
Do you have a favourite Mandarin Oriental hotel?
I've only visited the London hotel where I ate in Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, Dinner, but I'm a big fan of the Mandarin Oriental Group.
Which other of the Group's properties are you keen to visit?
I haven't been to Barcelona since 1957, when I went to watch a handful of bullfights. I'd like to go back. Also, I'd like to stay at Mandarin Oriental in Paris. Both are great destinations – I'd like to tick them off my list.