Rewind: Peter Blake & Under Milk Wood

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2012

In 1954 everyone’s favourite, loveable, Welsh drunkard, Dylan Thomas, penned Under Milk Wood, a ‘play for voices’ that quickly became one of the best-loved pieces of British literature. Set in the course of a single night and day, his sleepy Welsh town of Llareggub gives us a window into the everyday lives of ordinary Welsh villagers. But, for me, it is the beautiful, pervading sense of darkness in the book’s description of night that is captivating – I can vividly remember being transfixed by the first few lines. “Down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishboat – bobbing sea.” How could anybody not fall in love with this music?

It is this sense of cosy, coastal darkness that the artist Peter Blake captures and contorts wildly in his set of collages to accompany the work. Famous for his mad, eclectic album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, here Blake injects a wonderfully psychedelic, disturbing element into Thomas’ writing. His collages are full of twisted dream sequences, of colourful figures vying for space against lurid backgrounds filled with random flying objects. Looking at them, I feel sucked into Blake’s mismatched world where nothing is ever as it seems – even the “starless and bible-black” darkness of a small Welsh village. Whilst Dylan Thomas lyricises beautifully about the night (“the houses are blind as moles,”) Blake picks this world up and shakes it, rolling it over to reveal the crazed underside of our regular lives.

Blake works with hundreds of scrapbooks, cutting out shapes that fascinate him – a gramophone, a tap dancing fox or a dining table. It perfectly captures Thomas’ writing, particularly the dark undercurrent. It should come as no surprise, after all, that Llareggub is ‘bugger all’ backwards.

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