Sir Peter Blake’s 28-year-long obsession with Dylan Thomas bears fruit in Cardiff

By Mark Sheerin | 28 November 2013

Exhibition preview: Llareggub: Peter Blake illustrates Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, National Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, until March 16 2014

Part colour collage of a rural Victorian crowd
Sir Peter Blake, And when you think of all those babies she’s got (2013)© Courtesy of Sir Peter Blake
With his centenary upon us, this is an exciting time for Dylan Thomas fans. And few people can show more dedication to the Welsh poet than Sir Peter Blake. The 81-year-old pop art artist claims to listen to the bard’s play for radio, Under Milk Wood, twice a week. To this extent at least, he is an authority.

Curator Beth McIntyre tells us that Blake has been making works inspired by the play for 28 years. “When we got in touch with him first about the show I think that just gave him something to work towards," she says.

The occasion called for it. It is 50 years since the poet died and next year it will be 100 years since his death. So Blake’s work has been brought together for a major show at National Museum Cardiff.

Here you will now find portraits of the cast, surrealistic watercolours and collages, plus landscapes based on the fictional village of Llareggub (the spelling of which can also be read backwards to interesting effect).

Colour painting of a snowscape featuring two women in pink coats
Sir Peter Blake, Mother is Making Welshcakes in the Snow© Courtesy of Sir Peter Blake
McIntyre says it is likely the poet would have been “intrigued” by the show: “The nice thing about what Peter Blake has done is he's tried to take the texts literally, and I'm sure Dylan Thomas would appreciate that”. This show is not an artist’s impression, but an artist’s faithful tribute.

Even so, the visual rendering of literary characters is always sure to dismay readers everywhere: “That is how Blake sees those characters and I see some of those characters quite differently in my mind, so I'm sure Dylan would have seen them differently as well."

Thomas now has a direct link to both the Beatles and the Kinks. He found his way onto the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (designed, of course, by Blake) and is said to have been an inspiration behind the The Village Green Preservation Society from the Kinks.

“Maybe it's the timing of it, coming out in the 50s,” says McIntyre of these poppy references. “He was at the right place at the right time.” Under Milk Wood came out shortly after Thomas’s death and won a wide listenership as a result. But Thomas hasn’t always been in fashion and the curator compares him with Lewis Carroll, whose best known works are endlessly reinterpreted by artists.

“I think he's got a huge dedicated fan network who are trying to bring him more to the notice of the public in general ,” says McIntyre, who hopes the anniversary and the centenrary will remind people “just how good a poet he was”.

Indeed, there is a zany poetry at work in the title of the curator’s favourite work in the exhibition: Tidbits in Topsy Turvy’s Bobs and Button Tops. Depsite the modest size of this collage, McIntyre sees “this wonderful random list of things which have been washed up by the sea.” Blake has tried to convey the full extent of it, giving visual form to nail parings, dandruff and whale juice along the way.

But don’t think Blake has finished with his literary idol. “I don't think they'll ever be 'finished' finished. I think it is planned to go back to them after the show," says McIntyre of the pieces here.

Just as Blake cannot get enough of Thomas, those in Cardiff should get themselves along to this landmark show. If not twice weekly, then maybe twice at least.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @Museum_Cardiff.

You might also like:

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Jitka Palmer on Dylan Thomas at the International Ceramics Festival in Aberystwyth

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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