Richard Hamilton, Father of British Pop Art, Dies at Age 89

'Swingeing London'
``Swingeing London,'' an artwork by Richard Hamilton, is shown in this image released before its exhibition in London. Source: Serpentine Gallery via Bloomberg

Richard Hamilton, an artist known as the father of British Pop Art, died early this morning at age 89. The cause of death was not given.

Hamilton had worked until a few days before his death on a retrospective of his work scheduled to travel to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, London and Madrid in 2013-14, the Gagosian Gallery said in a statement e-mailed by publicists Bolton & Quinn.

A painter and printmaker born in London in 1922, Hamilton made waves with a prescient 1956 collage (“Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?”) that pictured a couple posing in an interior stuffed with products, logos, and slogans. The male figure, who looked like a body builder, carried a large lollipop labeled ‘POP.’

While his work until the 1980s was media-focused and in a Pop Art vein -- he famously portrayed Bing Crosby using a film still in “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” (1967) -- he became much more politically engaged after that, taking up the Northern Irish cause.

Like Pop Artists who came after him, Hamilton worked with found images that often captured key moments in history. A key example was the drug-related arrest in 1967 of the Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger and of Hamilton’s then art dealer, Robert Fraser. Hamilton produced many takes on the press snap of the handcuffed men (“Swingeing London,” 1967-1973).

Several of those Jagger views filled a room of his 2010 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The exhibition was otherwise a denunciation of the two Iraq wars (1991 and 2003) and of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Cowboy Blair

The highlight was “Shock and Awe,” a large photomontage of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair standing in the desert with a gun on each hip, wearing a cowboy shirt and a look of mild menace.

“I was really disgusted with his performance after starting the Iraq war, and being involved in starting it, and his hypocrisy,” the artist said in a March 2010 interview, looking frail and unassuming as he sat before the larger-than-life Blair.

Still seething, seven years on, at Blair’s alliance with then U.S. President George W. Bush, Hamilton remembered the two men’s visits.

“When he went to America and was staying with Bush, he stayed at the ranch, and they came out for a walk for the cameras with their thumbs in their pockets,” remembered Hamilton. Blair “was so pleased with himself.”

“Thinking of his role in relation to the Iraq war, I began to see this gunslinger as something like a cowboy,” he says.

Arizona Guns

The image was made using a photograph of Blair’s head. The rest of the figure was Hamilton’s assistant, who was “about half the size of Tony Blair, but with a computer you can stretch things.” The assistant wore a cowboy shirt someone had given Hamilton, as well as guns and holsters bought from an Arizona mail-order company.

Hamilton was just as exercised about Iraq back in 1991, when the U.S. led a military campaign to chase it out of Kuwait. Hamilton’s “War Games” (1991-2010) showed a TV screen with tanks and flags all over it, blood dripping from underneath.

Equally hard-hitting in the Serpentine show were Hamilton’s Northern Ireland pictures -- many depicting the prison near Belfast where, in the 1980s, republican inmates soiled their cells and staged hunger strikes.

The gallery entrance was taken up by an Ulster hunger striker’s hospital chamber (“Treatment Room,” 1983-4). It contained a corner sink, a bed with a rumpled blanket, and a TV set overhead that beamed muted footage of then U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

White Album

During the interview, Hamilton recalled the invitation he received from Paul McCartney to design the Beatles’ 1968 double album. He gave it a simple white cover -- hence its common title of The White Album -- and slipped a print inside: a folded collage of Beatles pictures.

McCartney “came to my studio every afternoon from about 2,” Hamilton said. “We had tea, and then he would go off to Abbey Road to do the mixing, and he worked through the night.”

The pair began an odd correspondence. Each would send the other a postcard with the correct name, but an unlikely address. “It was a test to see whether it would find its way!” said Hamilton with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know if any didn’t.”

“I suppose that collection of postcards is now quite unique,” he said. “One day it’ll be in the Tate Gallery, no doubt!”


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