Sir Peter Blake, R.A. (b. 1932)
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Sir Peter Blake, R.A. (b. 1932)

Boys with New Ties

Sir Peter Blake, R.A. (b. 1932)
Boys with New Ties
signed 'P BLAKE' (lower right)
oil on board
12 3/8 x 29 7/8 in. (31.4 x 75.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1955.
Acquired directly from the artist in 1960.
Exhibition catalogue, Peter Blake, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Ivor Abrahams, London, Portal Gallery, 1960, n.p., no. 11.
Exhibition catalogue, Peter Blake, Bristol, City Art Gallery, 1969, p. 9, no. 5.
Exhibition catalogue, Peter Blake, London, Tate Gallery, 1983, p. 75, no. 7a.
London, Portal Gallery, Peter Blake, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Ivor Abrahams, March - April 1960, no. 11.
Bristol, City Art Gallery, Peter Blake, November - December 1969, no. 5.
London, Tate Gallery, Peter Blake, February - March 1983, no. 7a: this exhibition travelled to Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, April – June 1983.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

Painted towards the end of his studies at the Royal College of Art (1953-56), this intricately detailed but eerily faceless triple portrait typifies the early figurative work of Peter Blake informed by intimate childhood memories and personal experience. In its faux-naive rendering of the human figure and its obsessive, almost hallucinatory, recording of incidental features that enrich the atmosphere and setting and add to the believability of the event as something witnessed and vividly recalled in memory, it already captures qualities that were to be reinforced with his encounter with the ‘magical realism’ of the American painters Honoré Sharrer, Ben Shahn and Bernard Perlin at the Tate Gallery’s exhibition Modern Art in the United States in early 1956. In its style and content alike it builds on the qualities of his ground-breaking Children Reading Comics 1954 (Tullie House Art Museum and Gallery, Carlisle) and anticipates the major autobiographical paintings made by Blake in his twenties, notably The Preparation for the Entry into Jerusalem 1955-56 (Royal College of Art Collection), On The Balcony 1955-57 (Tate) and the culminating Self-Portrait with Badges 1961 (Tate), in which the artist explicitly presented himself as an overgrown child, a late-twenties teen in arrested development.

All these works, characterised by an unapologetic embrace of illustrational precision, implicit narrative, wistful nostalgia and an affection for English identity, are deeply rooted in Blake’s working-class upbringing on the eastern fringes of London in suburban Kent and in the deprivations he experienced as a child twice wrenched away from the family home during wartime evacuations. Aged just seven at the outbreak of the Second World War, Blake had already formed a taste for visiting the cinema with his mother and for other popular entertainments that were to form a backdrop to his adult life and the subject matter for much of his mature work. Growing up during those war years in unfamiliar and not always sympathetic surroundings, left without the toys a child of his age would have expected to play with, he developed an intense attachment to things that others would have considered too trivial to merit their notice: American magazines promising a more glamorous existence, consumer products and their graphically alluring packaging, substitute jewellery in the form of cheaply-produced badges and items of clothing that speak of allegiances to particular ‘tribes’ and communities. Every aspect of these obsessions, set against a pastoral English landscape, is foregrounded in Boys with New Ties, all the more powerfully and unnervingly for the artist’s decision to represent the three adolescents absolutely frontally, at close range and more or less decapitated, as if captured casually in a quick and carelessly framed photographic snapshot.

The children depicted in these early paintings may seem more like anonymous cyphers than portraits, but for Blake they carried specific and intense personal associations: his younger siblings (sister Shirley and baby brother Terry) and a cousin were among those recalled from the vantage point of early adulthood. Boy with Pigeons, a painting made about a year earlier of a gawky boy in short trousers, amusingly wearing his very badly-knotted decorative necktie over the top of his v-neck jumper, typifies the tone of these works in its mixture of childish self-satisfaction and awkwardness. Blake himself was painfully shy and insecure about his appearance, particularly after the cycle accident that left him facially scarred at the age of 17, and he imbued these temperamental characteristics into his paintings of children to such a profound extent that they can all be said to function as disguised self-portraits. His decision to grow a beard as a young man, his fascination with masks and his tendency to obscure or even - as here - to eliminate the face altogether all connect to this sense of the self in retreat.

This diaristic quality is particularly marked in Boys with New Ties through the fact that the hand-decorated ties proudly worn by the trio of friends are faithful depictions of those that the artist himself painted and wore under Fair Isle sweaters during the 1950s as a way of introducing a sense of home-made glamour and opulence into the lingering austerity of the post-war years. He hand-painted at least half a dozen such ties, giving some to friends and keeping the others for himself. A variant of the tie on the left is wrapped around the neck of a similarly faceless boy in On the Balcony, a painting begun in the same year as this one. In place of the drab neckties worn under sufferance by uniformed schoolboys, these ones are clearly designed for play as emblems of pure pleasure and unrestrained freedom, decorated with blatantly sexy images of vampish young women, introducing a hint of incipient post-pubescent sexuality by which these boys announce their self-conscious intention of growing into men. That these women are clearly nothing more than the objects of fantasy for sexually inexperienced young boys adds to the honesty and touching human quality of the picture as a representation of life at an important moment of transition, a rite of passage to which we can all relate.

Stylistically, Boys with New Ties is a deliberate and intriguing mix of the old with, well, the new. At first glance, the overriding sensation is of a return to the precepts of Victorian painting both in the suggestion of narrative and in the naturalistic form of depiction. Within this framework, however, Blake conceals a startling modernity. The débris of contemporary printed matter littering the ground, similar in treatment to a small painting of the same year titled Footsteps (Museums Sheffield), introduces not only entirely up-to-date imagery but also a radically modern conception of flattened pictorial space and of a collage aesthetic tenderly translated into delicate passages of paint. By such means, already distant but still visually and emotionally strong childhood memories are brought insistently into the present.

We are very grateful to Marco Livingstone for preparing this catalogue entry.

The present owner purchased Boys with New Ties directly from Blake in 1960, for £30. In Blake's recycled frame (which still bears Leon Underwood labels on the reverse), she paid him in ten instalments of £3 a week every Saturday in a pub in Notting Hill. Friends at the Royal College of Art, when she won a scholarship to study for a few months in New York, Blake asked her to bring back an Ivy League Cap for him, which she did. Almost 50 years later, on the opening of his retrospective at Tate Liverpool in 2007, Blake remarked that Boys with New Ties was the one work he wished had been included in the exhibition: 'I know who has got it, but I don't know where she is.'

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