Special Feature: ‘A life of light and shade’ - To mark his 80th birthday, the Comet talks to Stevenage’s most well known artist, Peter Blagg about rock ‘n’ roll, recession and artistic recognition

Peter Blagg next to his latest painting based on the Cornish coast.

Peter Blagg next to his latest painting based on the Cornish coast. - Credit: Archant

He may be a far less celebrated artist, but Peter Blagg was producing circular ‘spin’ paintings nearly 30 years before Damien Hirst.

Peter Blagg is still very much at home in his studio in Baldock

Peter Blagg is still very much at home in his studio in Baldock - Credit: Archant

“I’m waiting for him to sue me”, chuckles the 80-year-old when I meet him at his compact Baldock studio.

It’s a statement typical of Blagg’s good humour - albeit tinged with a hint of regret that his pioneering 1960s work has remained largely under the radar of most art critics in recent times.

Dressed in a black smoking jacket complete with buttonhole, he has a casual North London drawl similar to Bill Nighy. He relaxes at his studio table and lights up a cigar as his assistant Dominique flusters through files of his work she has painstakingly archived.

“The headmaster at the school where I taught was a very forward thinking man and used to let the teachers do their art work in front of the students. I used a potters wheel and used to pour poster ink onto it to create the patterns”, he says.

Rooks Nest, former home of author EM Forster, painted in 1997

Rooks Nest, former home of author EM Forster, painted in 1997 - Credit: Archant


You may also want to watch:


Produced in 1967 the works are indicative of the psychedelic technicolour of the decade. The similarity to Hirst’s much later circular paintings is striking.

Blagg came from a working class background and says he still “asks himself what he’s doing” amongst the middle classes.

Most Read

He lived through the Blitz - an experience he describes as “terrifying”, with his first creative forays entertaining his family and fiends with home made puppet shows.

His mother insisted the family get out of the London smog and the they moved to Stevenage where his father got a job building some of the first council houses – one of which the family moved into.

St Nicholas Church, Stevenage, painted in 1956

St Nicholas Church, Stevenage, painted in 1956 - Credit: Archant

Blagg says he was overwhelmed by the openness of the countryside around the – then tiny – town of Stevenage, and took trips out on his bike to paint watercolours - which even in his late teens – show a mature sureness of mark making.

Blagg went to Barclay School in Stevenage which he says was an “incredible place” compared to the “dreary secondary school” he had attended in London.

He soon enrolled at St Albans School of art where his tutors included Anthony Blunt and Elizabeth Frink.

Notable models included Quentin Crisp who became a lifelong friend.

Peter Blagg was creating 'spin' paintings in the 1960s, years before Damien Hirst.

Peter Blagg was creating 'spin' paintings in the 1960s, years before Damien Hirst. - Credit: Archant

After national service and a few menial jobs, Blagg married school friend Jeannie Porter and the couple moved to Cornwall with their baby son.

It was here Peter began to explore the Cornish light and the vibrant colours and textures of rock formations and offshore islands.

He was rewarded with a solo show at the Newlyn Art Gallery in 1964, and met and worked with many notable St Ives artists at this time.

The family were forced to move back to Stevenage when – incredibly – Blagg’s wife was sacked from her teaching job after falling pregnant.

A view of Forster Country painted when Stevenage was still a tiny town in the 1950s.

A view of Forster Country painted when Stevenage was still a tiny town in the 1950s. - Credit: Archant

But Blagg was soon experimenting with colour slides and began to develop pioneering production techniques which would turn into some of the first ever multimedia audio-visual shows ever made.

He set up his own graphics business in 1970 along with his brother-in-law. Initially he secured corporate contracts but increasingly film and record companies became interested in his computer driven multi-screen presentations coupled with original music and colourful set designs.

A host of celebrities including Patrick Allen, Bob Monkhouse and Quentin Crisp made their way to his production studios hidden away in Stevenage’s Old Town, to create audio visual extravaganzas which they would later take to the stage.

The high point came when Peter created the audio visual backdrop to the kinky light and sound explosion that was the Frankie Goes to Hollywood world tour in the mid 1980s.

Blagg's very own 'spin' paintings were completed in the 1960s.

Blagg's very own 'spin' paintings were completed in the 1960s. - Credit: Archant

Even here though Blagg undercuts his own success. “What you couldn’t see from the stage was all the musicians hidden behind these hexagon shapes who were actually playing the instruments,” he laughs.

There followed major commissions from the National gallery and Dudley Zoo and a consultancy for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But like so many artists, success came before a fall.

In 1990 Peter’s business collapsed as the recession hit.

There followed some difficult years including a high court battle with the banks which eventually won.

But he kept working and in later years began to revisit the subject matter of his early days around Stevenage.

He produced a series of depictions of Stevenage’s ‘Forster Country’ – the hilly area where author EM Forster once lived – which are undoubtedly some of his best work. Traditional in composition, the works still have elements of the verve, fluidity and – in some cases psychedelia – of his sixties work.

Watercolours depicting a misty view of St Nicholas Church under a giant hazy sun, EM Forster’s cottage home, Rooks Nest, lurking broodingly just behind the brow of a hill and fields at Graveley with Hockneyesque bursts of colour along the ploughlines, show Blagg seeing the landscapes of his youth through the projectionist’s lense.

Most recently Peter has revisited his love of coastal Cornwall with two large paintings, Fallen Rocks and Portreath Beach, depicting coastal scenes full of rocky textures and vibrant depictions of twisting geological layers.

Peter is working towards a retrospective exhibition at the Broadway Gallery in Letchworth later this year.

Given his constantly shifting subject matter and technique throughout his career, it will be a varied show, but it’s that pioneering spirit and constant need to innovate that marks him out from many of his contemporaries who have often – less adventurously – stuck to a winning formula.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter