Sir Peter Blake, R.A., Strong Man, 1, 1957, Estimate £150,000 – 250,000
Modern & Post-War British Art

Roll Up, Roll Up – Peter Blake’s Strong Man

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

A s one of Britain’s greatest living painters, Peter Blake – the father of British Pop Art – has, over the past seventy years explored his love and fascination with the concept of nostalgia. And now, appearing for the first time in public for well over half a century, Sotheby’s is delighted to be presenting an early masterpiece by the artist as part of the 20 November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.

Sir Peter Blake, R.A., Strong Man, 1, 1957, estimate £150,000 – 250,000
Sir Peter Blake, R.A., Strong Man, 1, 1957. Estimate £150,000–250,000.

Strong Man, 1 comes from a small group of works created by the artist whilst still in his early 20s, fresh from studying at London’s Royal College of Art. This small handful of proto-Pop paintings that Blake produced in the mid- to late-1950s form the nucleus of some of the most important and lasting influences over the artist’s work. In paintings such as Strong Man, 1, as well as Loelia, World’s Most Tattooed Lady (1955, Private Collection) and Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness (1957, Private Collection) the artist explored his fascination with characters that populated the fringes of society.

Peter Blake, Shakespeare Exhibition, Stratford on Avon. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

The works that Blake produced, executed on found and discarded wooden boards, become objects – relic-like – worked and scarred by the hand of the artist and the imagined passing of time. Like something unearthed at the back of a dusty antique shop, the paint surface is rubbed and blistered, referencing some fading memory of childhood experiences. With the application of collaged elements, seen through the pin-up beauties on the strong man’s belt and the bold, circus-style typography the work harks back to memories of a world which by the 1950s had all but disappeared.

Detail from Sir Peter Blake, R.A., Strong Man, 1, 1957. Estimate £150,000–250,000.
Detail from Sir Peter Blake, R.A., Strong Man, 1, 1957. Estimate £150,000–250,000.

This sense of ‘Englishness’ is clearly something that fascinated the artist, and the most popular pastime of the circus, in all its faded glory in particular. As a student at the Royal College, each Christmas between 1953-6 Blake was allowed backstage at Bertram Mill’s circus at London’s Olympia to observe the performers, once finding himself sketching alongside the grand Dame of the British art scene, Laura Knight, who was also a frequent visitor to the circus.

A Lion Tamer at Bertram Mills Circus, Ascot.
A Lion Tamer at Bertram Mills Circus, Ascot. Edward G. Malindine, Collection National Media Museum.

He later recalled ‘It was also around that time I painted those first images of tattooed ladies and strong men’. Blake was to be inspired not only by the subjects he studied there, but also the broader visual style of the circus, with bright, bold lettering that was appear in many of his works from the period.

Poster design for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, produced by F. Ziegfeld Jr and featuring the famous strong man Eugen Sandow.

Included in one of the artist’s first ever public exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1958, Strong Man, 1 was acquired by a young artist studying in London at the time – purchased as the very best of the contemporary British art scene. And today, sixty years on, and appearing for the first time at auction, the work is still as fresh and immediate as it must have appeared back then.

‘the most original of these young painters is Peter Blake. He is so unmistakably and unshakably himself that his pictures do not look like anything else that has ever been called a work of art … Most of his pictures are painted on bits of scrapped planking, they usually depict circus people in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Victorian posters, and the painted titles are part of the image… The painted image is partly scrubbed out, as if to give it the look of an ancient panel, and then bits of the clothing are ‘restored’ with coloured tin-foil. The clash between paint and tin-foil recreates in a remarkable way the noise, the garish lights and the tawdry finery.’
(Architectural Review, April 1958, review of Five Painters at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, featuring the present work)

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