Five decades on, the brightly coloured line-up of John, Ringo, Paul and George surrounded by a celebrity motley crew remains instantly recognisable.
The cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles’ best-selling album, has etched itself into British pop culture. Five decades on, the brightly coloured line-up of John, Ringo, Paul and George surrounded by a celebrity motley crew remains instantly recognisable. This record sleeve is still, despite his 60-year-career, Peter Blake’s most famous work – something his representatives say “gets a bit tedious”.
Blake didn’t, however, work alone. His then wife, American artist Jann Haworth, says she was jointly commissioned by art dealer Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser. But she’s been largely left out of the history of the cover’s creation as other characters, such as Paul McCartney, have shuffled to the fore. Now, as Sgt Pepper approaches its 50th anniversary, she tells her story.
The accepted narrative of the cover is that McCartney drew up the concept for Blake to bring to life. “Paul’s sketch was the inspiration for the artwork,” McCartney’s representatives claim. The drawing has even made it into the album’s anniversary release. In an interview published on a Beatles fansite, McCartney said: “I took the whole cover idea to [Robert Fraser]; he represented Blake.”
We asked The Beatles to choose the heroes… but they didn’t choose enough to be the crowd. Peter and I chose over half
Haworth claims never to have seen the sketch. “The first I heard of this was very recently,” she says.
Such stories pervade pop music’s history like cigarette smoke, and Haworth suggests that the cover can be scoured for artistic fingerprints. “If one wanted to be a detective,” she begins our conversation, “the clues exist in the work.”
She refers to Blake’s collages and his fascination with depicting heroes – both fundamental to the cover. Haworth, meanwhile, used life-size models in her work since 1962, when she made a life-size piece for a show at the ICA.
Haworth moved to London in 1961, aged 19. The daughter of artist Miriam and Oscar-winning art director Ted Haworth, she had grown up in Hollywood, “around Hitchcock and on the set of Some Like It Hot”. There were dinners with Tony Curtis and Marlon Brando, family jaunts to the beach with Robert Mitchum. She moved into the basement (“a hovel with a hole in front of the loo”) of Peter and Alison Smithson – the New Brutalist architects and defining Pop Art movement members – and studied at the Slade school of art, where in 1963 she proposed an exhibition that led her to Blake.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – JULY 08: Peter Blake (L) and Jann Haworth attend the Serpentine Gallery Summer Party on July 8, 2010 in London, England.
“It was pretty scary – it’ll shock you,” she says of their whirlwind affair. “We met in February and went out a few times. He was very sad – recovering from a romance that went wrong. And we got married in June. Wasn’t that silly?” Yet their marriage lasted for 16 years, although Haworth says “it was in rocky shape after 10”. Both were represented by Fraser, who opened his gallery in Mayfair in 1962 and swiftly became known for launching artists into Swinging London.
Even in her early twenties, Haworth attracted attention for her work. “Both Peter and I at that point were equal,” she explains. “I was extremely lucky. I would give enormous credit to Robert – his eye was unique and his choices were radical.”
By the mid-Sixties, Fraser was mingling with The Beatles, and was among the first to hear chunks of Sgt Pepper while the album was being recorded. Design collective The Fool had been working on the cover but Fraser, Haworth says, “thought it didn’t do justice to the music he was hearing”.
Blake and Howarth were suggested as alternatives: “I can’t even think why he thought Peter and I would do a good job,” she says, “but he put the idea forward to Paul.”
Work began in the early days of 1967, with meetings at record company EMI and outings with McCartney and his then girlfriend Jane Asher. Blake and Howarth lived and worked in a one-bedroom flat on Avely Avenue, Chiswick, and it was here that the artists, McCartney and Fraser “jammed, not even for long, on what this could be”. Blake then drew up “the first sketch and the only sketch” that Haworth is aware of.
To celebrate 50 years since The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, Chiswick House and Gardens host a living installation in partnership in Clifton Nurseries recreating the artwork from the infamous cover.
The four discussed the cover’s most famous aspects: the drum that contained the album title, the choice of heroes and the floral planting that spelt out “Beatles”. “I wanted to do a take on civic planting, and there happened to be a flowerbed clock near Hammersmith. I referenced it because I knew that Paul and Robert would be going home that way,” Haworth says.
She brought in fairground painter Joe Ephgrave, who had painted wardrobes for her and her mother, to create the drum. “I’m pretty sure he was paid pounds 25. That drum has been used and re-used.” For a while the skin hung on McCartney’s wall. In 2008, it sold for pounds 540,000 at Christie’s.
“We asked The Beatles to choose the heroes,” Haworth recalls, “but they didn’t choose enough to be the crowd. Peter and I chose over half.” Contrary to reports, Ringo Starr was involved, putting comedian Issy Bonn on the list. John Lennon, meanwhile, offered more contentious choices. “Aleister Crowley and Hitler were on John’s list,” Haworth says. “Hitler was cut out as a full-size standing figure, and there’s photographic evidence of it in the centre-front row for quite a long time. To the shame of everyone there, it wasn’t taken out immediately.”
Picture research was a collaborative effort by the artists and photographer Michael Cooper and his assistants. The images were blown up, pasted on hardboard, cut out and stained – a job Haworth took on. “Peter absolutely declined to do it – he hated getting his hands dirty,” says Haworth. Cooper’s assistant Nigel Hartnup writes in June’s Mojo magazine that he did much of the staining, and that Haworth “did Tyrone Power and Oliver Hardy, perhaps a couple more”. “Tyrone Power’s deep orange because I’d only done it once before,” she admits. “After that, I lightened up on the tinting.”
The line-up was bolstered by Haworth’s sculptures, in particular those of the Old Lady and Shirley Temple, with waxworks of The Beatles, controversially on loan from Madame Tussauds for the first time. “We didn’t know until the last minute we’d get those figures,” Haworth says. “We had to persuade the museum board to allow them out.”
The shoot itself took place at Cooper’s studio in Chelsea, on March 30. Haworth doesn’t recall a “big reveal” moment when The Beatles walked in, although there are photos of Lennon on set out of costume. Other reports of the shoot feature chaotic scenes, loud soul music and skeins of marijuana smoke in the air as Cooper got his shot. But for Haworth, it was merely “a job at the time; it was a normal thing to be doing”.
Rock history claims that Blake was paid pounds 200 for his efforts, but Haworth specifies: “He got pounds 100, because I got pounds 100,” a fee she describes as “fine”. While she, like Blake, was awarded a Grammy for best album cover (“The kids played with it in the garden. The dog chewed on the wooden base”), she took umbrage when EMI didn’t send her a platinum disc, as it had to Blake. “They were very nasty when I asked, and I consulted a lawyer,” she says.
Haworth seems to have few regrets despite the fallout, though has little idea where her cut-outs went: “I imagine many were thrown out. I would love to have Mae West but she’s gone somewhere.” Blake refused to give any interviews for the anniversary, but his wife Chrissy emailed on his behalf: “Peter has absolutely no contact with his ex-wife, and if she wants to claim she was commissioned to do the artwork, let it be.”
Haworth says she doesn’t want celebrity, but she would like credit for collaborating on the creation of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. “All that fame business…” she trails off. “Perhaps we need to grow up and move past that now.”