My best teacher - Peter Blake

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Three influential figures helped the artist during his early brushes with a creative career

It is a long time since I was at school, but three teachers stand out for me.

Miss Gaspar, the head of Maypole School in Dartford, which Mick Jagger attended several years later, was the only teacher to single me out because of my art until I was 14. I was five years old and I drew a picture of Miss Gaspar chasing me with her cane as I tried to scramble over the school wall. She was rather taken with it and pinned it up, but I'm not sure whether she liked it because she thought it was a good drawing or because it appealed to her sense of humour - she was a kindly woman and I'm quite sure she never caned anyone.

When I was seven, the war began and my sister Shirley, who was five, and I were evacuated to Helions Bumpstead in Essex. It wasn't an official evacuation; it was arranged by a neighbour who came from there, so Shirley and I were the only children at the school who didn't come from the village and we were considered rather freaky.

We stayed with the Lofts. Mrs Lofts was not unkind but was strict and religious and we had to go to church three times on a Sunday. Mr Lofts was in the Navy and came back every three months with great stories of being at sea. They had a gangly son who was about 12 and spent his whole time clutching a plate, pretending to drive a bus, and a daughter who was about the same age as me. She had a little withered hand and was slightly unstable: she once chased my sister with a carving knife.

There were also two lodgers - Phil, a farm labourer who got up at five o'clock every morning and would fart all the way down the stairs, and Mr Grace, whose leg had been amputated on the battlefield during the Boer War.

There was no electricity, just paraffin lamps, and the water came from a pump in the kitchen. Mrs Lofts was quite a good cook but the food was pretty basic. Bread was always at least a day stale because she believed freshly baked bread was bad for you. Sometimes we ate odd things like crow, pigeon or rabbit - country food that they could get their hands on.

We were never subjected to physical cruelty but it was an unhappy time. It was like a missing childhood and I look back on it a bit like National Service - something I had to get through.

There was a teacher at the village school called Mrs Short. She was quite a small woman who was also from London and must have been aware that we were in a strange situation because she invited us to her house a few times to play with her little boy, who was about my age. I remember her giving me some model aircraft to play with. It meant a great deal to be in a slightly more normal environment. She had electricity and the food she cooked was more sophisticated than what we had at the Lofts'.

Eventually, we went back to Dartford, where I went to a very rough secondary modern until I was 14, when I got a place at Dartford Technical College and first studied art. After the intermediate year of wood-carving, stone-carving, silversmithing and life drawing, I had to choose what to study for my National Diploma. I wanted to do the painting course, but the general advice was to take commercial art. One of the teachers, Peter Todd, who had taken an interest in me, thought I should apply to go to the Royal College of Art and, against the wishes of the other staff, helped me get my portfolio together. I got in and became a half-trained graphic designer studying to be a painter, but it changed everything. I don't think I would ever have applied if it had not been for Mr Todd.

- An exhibition by Sir Peter Blake - "Homage 10x5: Blake's Artists" - based on work by his favourite artists, is at the Waddington Galleries, London, November 17-December 11;

Sir Peter was talking to Hilary Whitney.

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