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Sir Peter Blake celebrates the genius of Dylan Thomas

— January 2014

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Peter Blake, The Sailors Arms © Peter Blake

Poet Dylan Thomas was born in 1914. Veronica Davies reports on a worthy tribute by Sir Peter Blake as Wales remembers a favourite son

As Wales celebrates the 2014 centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas, an exhibition at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff creates the perfect celebratory juxtaposition of word and image.  The words are those of Thomas’ 1953 ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, the images those of Sir Peter Blake, the summation of a project – or ‘hobby’ – of his that has in fact been under way for some 28 years, and is now being shown to the public for the first time.  Blake states that he has always been both a painter and an illustrator, and this exhibition brings together many aspects of the illustrator’s craft – watercolour painting, collage, and pencil drawing – in a visually rich mix that is already attracting a large number of enthusiastic visitors.

 ‘To begin at the beginning’, the genesis of the series came from a suggestion in 1985 from Michael Mitchell, of the Libanus Press, for Blake to produce a number of wood engravings as illustrations to an edition of Under Milk Wood that Mitchell planned to produce. As part of this project, which in fact was never carried out, Mitchell and Blake made an exploratory trip to Laugharne, where, quite by coincidence, Thomas’ widow Caitlin had returned for the first time in decades for a book signing.  A display in the ‘ephemera’ part of the Cardiff exhibition testifies to this, and more generally to Blake’s ever-productive archiving activities, including a train ticket he used that day, newspaper cuttings about Caitlin’s memoirs, and contact sheets of photographs taken that day, some of which have found their way into the collage works now on show. Some of those original exploratory wood blocks, also on display, suggest that one or two images have remained constant, such as the portrait of Mr Waldo.

The works in the exhibition are arranged into three sections, and this order is also followed in a book which has now been produced by Enitharmon Editions and which accompanies the exhibition: ‘The Dreams’, ‘The Play’, and ‘Portraits of the Voices’. Blake notes how, reading Under Milk Wood on a long plane journey, he had a ‘moment of revelation’ of the structure and sequence of the play. He could see how he might depict it, how it starts at night (in Thomas’ words, ‘starless and bible-black’) in observing the dreams of the residents of Llareggub, then moves to the daytime voices and activities of the town and its inhabitants. 

From where you are, you can hear their dreams’. ‘The Dreams’ are a series of watercolours based on all the dreams in the play, often erotic or nostalgic and demonstrating aspects of personality not always apparent in the daytime persona of the dreamer...

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‘Llareggub: Peter Blake illustrates Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas’ is at the National Museum Cardiff  until 16 March 2014

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