From the austere streets of WWII, Birmingham, to a state-of-the-art studio and gallery on the sparkling shores of Noosa, Australia, with stints in Zurich, Mallorca and Costa Rica in between, it's safe to say that Peter Phillips (Pop art pioneer, sun-seeker, tough guy) has travelled a lot during his lifetime. Ask Peter about his travel tales, and you'll need a while, though. He has heaps, each as eclectic and colourful as his paintings, of which, he's created more than a thousand to date. But, ask him about his legacy and how he'd like to be remembered, and you'll be greeted with a response that lives up to his straight-talking reputation. He's not one for sentimentality or politics. Noted.
At 80-years-young, Peter's jet-setting days may have taken the back seat in recent years, but he has no plans of retiring yet. Art is all he's ever known. In addition to the various retrospectives in galleries such as Tate, London, and an appearance in Ken Russell's popular docufilm Pop Goes The Easel (1962), Peter's glittering sixty-year career boasts hundreds of notable works, including The Entertainment Machine (1961), Spectrocoupling (1972) and Africa Twirl, a design for the 2010 World Cup. In fact, he has a handful of projects in the pipeline ready to release post-pandemic, which includes a sequel to Hybrid, his famous 1966 collaboration with fellow Brit, Gerald Laing, which we’ll talk more about later.
We were also lucky enough to feature three of his iconic artworks (Front Axle, Transpectral Mission and Constructed Painting) in our new beachwear collaboration, the perfect get-up for holidays in the sun. With a shared passion for world-class travel destinations, Slim Aarons, sunshine, and of course, Pop art, we were delighted to catch up with Peter to chat about all three.
Like our readers, you appear to love travel. What is it about travel and holidays that captivates you, and how much have these experiences inspired your art?
Peter: “Growing up in Birmingham [England] in WWII, I never dreamed I would one day travel the world. As a teenager, I won an art scholarship to travel through northern Italy, which left an indelible mark. I left England in my twenties. I’ve lived in New York, Switzerland, the Seychelles, Spain, Costa Rica and Australia. I’ve travelled the world extensively most of my life—the stories would barely fit in a book, let alone this interview. I’m sure my environment, experiences and surroundings have worked their way into my work, which is why my pictures have evolved significantly over the past sixty years.”
The inspiration for our Spring ’21 collection began with an article about Andy Warhol’s Montauk beach house (Eothen), so, of course, we have to ask: did you ever visit?
Peter: “I lived in New York in the mid-sixties, and of course, we ran in the same social circles, but most of my time was spent working and exhibiting in New York City. When I left Manhattan, I got a big Chevy and drove my friend [fellow Pop artist] Allen Jones around the country. We immediately went south to Key West, before slowly heading towards California. We never went east to Montauk.”
Do you still catch up with your old peers from the Royal College of Art? And have you, like the rest of the world, crossed over to the Zoom yet?
Peter: “We still keep in touch, but it’s mostly through email, telephone and letters.”
Has the meaning of Pop art evolved since it originated?
Peter: “I never attached specific meaning to the term ‘Pop art’. That was coined by a good friend of mine, Lawrence Alloway. For me, there are really only two forms of art—good and bad. The balance between the two hasn’t really changed over the course of my life, in my opinion.”
Let’s go back a bit. Your earlier works, inspired by your industrial Birmingham surroundings, have a much moodier tone than your vibrant Pop art catalogue. How did you transition into what became to be known as Pop art?
Peter: “When I was young, the only way to make a living as an English artist was to either teach or to secure the patronage of a wealthy aristocrat, they wanted traditional paintings—landscapes, nudes, still life, etc. That’s what we were taught at the Royal College of Art. But London in the late 50s was changing, and a small group of us started to use popular images for our pictures, which was frowned upon at the time. We never called it ‘Pop art’; we were just trying to express who we were.”
Do you create your paintings purely for visual impact, or is there a deeper meaning?
Peter: “It’s never my intent to imbue paintings with specific pre-meditated meaning. Often, when operating on a subconscious level, there can be a deeper meaning that emerges, but that’s really a matter for the viewer to decide.”
What’s your go-to kit, and how much has this changed since the early days of your career?
Peter: “When scouring source materials for popular images, I used to use magazines, comic books, playing cards, etc. Now, it’s much easier to use computers for research. I’ve also discovered that using a good pair of jeweller’s glasses enables me to paint fine details that would have been missing from my earlier works.”
Your wife Claude was a prominent model and designer; has her fashion influence inspired how you dress or paint?
Peter: “Claude was a cover model before launching her own label, Galaxy, in Zurich. Her fashion appealed to women, so it didn’t much inspire my wardrobe. We were very good friends with Ossie Clarke, who probably did more to inspire the way I personally dressed.”
In May 2020, you were due to release Hybrid 2.0, the follow up to Hybrid (1966). Tell us more about this exciting collaboration.
Peter: “Gerald Laing and I created Hybrid, an ‘ideal’ sculpture created from focus group testing artists, curators, critics and collectors to emulate their prevailing tastes at that time. A few years ago, I thought about how different that sculpture would look today. My daughter contacted Gerald’s sons about the idea, who operate their father’s foundry in a castle in the Scottish Highlands. We adapted the original methodology to a digital platform, re-ran the experiment, and re-created Hybrid, calling it Hybrid 2.0. The finished sculpture was scheduled to be unveiled in London in April 2020, but it’s been delayed due to the pandemic. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to unveil it to the world soon!”
Have you ever had to compromise your creative vision for success?
Peter: “I was lucky enough to find success as an artist at a young age. Once I realised I had enough money to survive, I could paint what interested me and not what others wanted from me. I haven’t looked back since.”
And if you hadn’t found success as an artist, was there a plan B that interested you?
Peter: “I came from a working-class family in WWII, England. I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to pursue my interests—it was a matter of surviving. Thankfully, I was talented as a child and have been formally trained as an artist since I was 13 years old. I’ve never known anything else.”
We could all do with a holiday right now. Being such an avid traveller, can you please share some of your favourite destinations?
Peter: “I can think of a few that immediately come to mind. Mahe, Seychelles is where I married my wife, on the beach, with a chicken under my arm as best-man. Another is Galley Bay, Antigua, which is where I was on holiday exactly nine months before my daughter was born… A third would be the hotel, La Residencia in Deià, Spain, where I fell in love with Mallorca and eventually built my studio. Lastly, I would pick Noosa, Australia, where I currently reside. The weather is some of the best in the world; the people are wonderfully friendly and down-to-earth, and everyone seems to care about each other.”
Finally, do you think about your artistic legacy and how you’d like to be remembered?
Peter: “That question’s a bit premature. I’m not dead yet.”
Our vibrant collaboration with Peter Phillips is available online & in-store now.
Find out more about Peter Phillips online: www.peterphillips.com @peterphillipsartist