By Tim Adams
On the eve of Sgt Pepper's half-century, the pop artist shares stories of his classic album sleeve, snubbing Warhol and why he hasn't paid a bill in Mr Chow for 50 years
I meet Sir Peter Blake in Mr Chow, the institution of a Chinese restaurant opposite One Hyde Park, where flats sell for £75m. Blake knew the restaurant's eponymous owner in leaner times. He first met Michael Chow, he explains as we sit down, when the restaurateur was living on a camp bed in the garage of the painter Victor Pasmore by the Thames at Chiswick. Blake and his friend Richard Lin went to supper in the garage, a glorious meal that Chow cooked on a single paraffin burner on the dirt floor. Both Lin and Chow were artists and political refugees from Mao's China, where Michael's father had been a leading performer in the Peking Opera. Ten years after that meal, in 1967, Blake was a guest of honour at the opening of this restaurant; Chow later opened in Beverly Hills and New York.
To decorate the restaurant back then, Chow invited his artist friends to donate paintings for the walls in exchange for food. Blake was then at the height of his fame as a pop artist in the year of Sgt Pepper; among other things he made a portrait of Chow as part of his “wrestlers series” (Frisco and Lorenzo Wong and Wildman Mr Chow). The deal proved a good one on both sides. Blake's paintings have only increased in value, and his tab has never run out. (The same cannot be said for another, nameless, artist. “He ate his share in two weeks,” Blake says. “He brought 20 people a night and drank the best champagne and that was that. With me, it has gone on for ever.”)