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Relationships

Lady Pippa Blake opens up about her new life and partner

Sixteen years after the tragic death of her Kiwi hero husband's death, Sir Peter Blake's widow Lady Pippa talks to Suzanne McFadden about her new life, her new partner and why New Zealand will always have a special place in her heart.

Pippa, Lady Blake, looks out over the azure waters rolling in to Oneroa Beach on Waiheke Island, and reveals that she could quite happily make her home here in New Zealand. She doesn't say this merely on a whim. It's an idea she has contemplated for some time now.
When her husband, sailor and adventurer Sir Peter Blake, was tragically killed by pirates on the Amazon River 16 years ago, Pippa could have hunkered down in the English village of Emsworth. It's where she grew up, where the couple met, then raised two children, and where Sir Peter is buried now.
But the artist with a nomadic streak has returned to Sir Peter's cherished nation at least once a year, every year – and wishes she could make it more.
"Since Peter died, I could have turned my back on New Zealand. But my love for this country has grown. Each time, I feel sad to leave," Pippa, now 63, says during a whirlwind winter visit to Auckland.
"It's the people, and the history that I had here with Peter. And it's just the way that Kiwis are; I've always been made to feel very much at home. Life is just more relaxed here."
Pippa still has many close friends in New Zealand – the men who sailed and worked with Peter, and their families. But undoubtedly the biggest drawcard for her now is Sarah-Jane, the Blakes' daughter, who lives on Waiheke in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf with her husband, Alistair Moore. As a rule, Pippa comes to stay for a month every Kiwi summer.
She has often considered living in New Zealand for seven months of the year. But there are still many things that call her back to her native England and her village in Hampshire on the picturesque south coast.
For one, her son James is at home in Emsworth when he's not exploring the planet and capturing its wildlife on film as a documentary film-maker and cameraman.
She also has her studio there, in her back garden, where she paints her acclaimed works, many of which are inspired by her world travels.
And then there is her intrepid travelling companion, her partner of the past seven years, Gordon Roddick. The couple share their two homes in England. Gordon has visited New Zealand twice with Pippa, "and he's very much enjoyed the food, the wine and the humour of the Kiwis," she says.
For now, Pippa is content with the ways things are.
"I'm happy, and busy. I try to pack into life as much as I can," she says.
And no matter where she is in the world, the memory of Peter is never far from her mind.
"I'm still very aware of the loss of Peter. I can be in a supermarket and the tears can well up," she admits.
"Four years ago, Gordon and I were driving between Napier and Taupo and we stopped along the way at a little café. At the counter, a woman said to me, 'Gosh, you really remind me of Pippa Blake.' And I said, 'Well, funnily enough, I am.' And she burst into tears, so I burst into tears too. She got her friend out from the kitchen, and then called her husband.
"It's extraordinary that, 16 years later, Peter's memory still has that effect on people. They come to his resting place in England and leave pairs of red socks. It's incredible."
On Pippa's most recent visit to New Zealand, in June, Peter's legacy was omnipresent. She went to Government House in Wellington to present the Blake Leader Awards on behalf of the Sir Peter Blake Trust, of which she is co-patron.Back in Auckland, she was the recipient of a unique honour – the first woman to be given the title of "Friend of New Zealand" at the Kea World Class New Zealand Awards.
She was praised for her work with the Trust, which was set up in 2004 to continue Peter's legacy and inspire future generations of Kiwi leaders, environmentalists and adventurers. Pippa was stunned and humbled by the award.
"I'm not a business leader, a famous scientist, a film director or a philanthropist. I'm just me," she laughs, still incredulous.
"I don't think of myself as being a Kiwi. But on the other hand, when I'm in the UK, anything to do with New Zealand and sport, I'm a huge supporter. And I'm always advocating that people should come here – it's so special."
She was also here just as Sir Peter's expedition boat, Seamaster (now named Tara), arrived in New Zealand – the first time it has returned since his untimely death onboard on that fateful day in December 2001.
The boat is now owned by the family of French fashion designer Agnès Troublé, old friends of the Blakes, who are continuing the conservation work and research into the world's oceans that Peter began.
The Blake family in 1994 on ENZA New Zealand, the boat in which Peter won the Jules Verne Trophy for sailing around the world non-stop.
And of course, Pippa was here as Team New Zealand – the sailing team that Peter established then led to victory in the America's Cups of 1995 and 2000 – were on their way to winning the world's oldest sporting trophy for a third time.
Back home in England, the day young skipper Peter Burling and the Kiwi team won the Auld Mug, Pippa celebrated with Champagne, along with Gordon and two of Peter's round-the-world sailing mates, Tony Rae and Ed Danby.
"I felt highly chuffed for the team," Pippa says, as she is certain Peter would have been too.
Gordon's late wife, Dame Anita Roddick, was an admirer of Peter's leadership and the environmental work he had been doing for the future of the planet's water. The founder of The Body Shop, Anita was a pioneering entrepreneur and an unstinting crusader for human rights and the environment.
"Anita had wanted to meet Peter, but it was never to be," Pippa says. "The year after Peter died, Anita asked to meet me, and I had dinner with her and Gordon."
In 2007, Anita died suddenly; she and Gordon, co-chairman of the successful Body Shop empire, had been married for 37 years. The altruistic couple worked together for a multitude of causes – among them campaigning to save the rainforest and whales, supporting indigenous farmers in impoverished countries, and helping disadvantaged and displaced children in eastern Europe and Asia.
Seven years ago, Pippa and Gordon met each other again through a mutual friend, and a relationship bloomed.
"We have both lost people who were very unique, and very special to us. We both have great respect for each other's spouses," she says.
Pippa with her children, Sarah-Jane, an artist who now lives in New Zealand with her Kiwi husband, and James, a wildlife documentary film-maker.
In his younger years, Scottish-born Gordon trained as an agricultural scientist and spent several years working on sheep farms in Australia. His many adventures included going down the Amazon in a dugout canoe.
Today he devotes much of his time to human rights and environmental issues. For Pippa, it has opened "a whole new chapter" in her varied life.
"I've had some incredible experiences travelling with Gordon. It has really opened my eyes," she says.
Pippa went with Gordon to a Louisiana prison to visit Albert Woodfox, a prisoner kept in solitary confinement for 43 years. He was one of the famous "Angola Three", whose supporters contend they were framed for the murder of a prison guard.
"We spent five hours talking to him. He was deeply philosophic and an awe-inspiring man,"
Pippa says. Anita had begun campaigning for justice for Albert before she died, then Gordon and family continued the fight.
Last year, Albert Woodfox was finally released from prison on his 69th birthday. He has been to stay with Gordon and Pippa since then.
Pippa's passion for art has not dimmed. When she met Peter at the Emsworth Sailing Club in 1978, she was working in a London art gallery, having graduated with a fine arts degree. Her painting continued after they were married, "with gaps for bringing up children and sailing campaigns".
Four years after Peter's death she returned to study, completing a post-graduate diploma in visual art, and focused on her painting career again.
"For a while, quite a lot of people in New Zealand couldn't see me as a serious artist because I was the wife of Sir Peter Blake," she says.
Peter and son James on the water in San Diego in 1995, the year New Zealand first won the America's Cup.
Pippa has had many solo shows, including two in New Zealand. Her latest exhibition was at the new Candida Stevens Gallery in Chichester, near her home in England.
Called Quest, the 20 paintings were a representation of her art over the past decade, including works from her new Flightpath series, which capture her long-haul flights to New Zealand.
"Whenever I come out to New Zealand, I come through Los Angeles. I always have a camera with me, and take photos out the window. Flying in at night, I'm intrigued by what might be beyond the horizon," she says. "There's a whole world out there, [people] getting on with their own lives and dramas."
The blurb for the Quest exhibition best describes her work: "Her subjects are inspired by dramatic geographical and manmade features; from gorges and wastelands to figures glimpsed. Her enigmatic paintings evoke a sense of mystery and mood, and for her they are outer expressions of her inner feelings."
"I'm quite a soulful person," she says, smiling. "I tend to look towards the melancholy in my painting."
That melancholy is evident in her latest assignment – she is one of 30 contemporary British artists who have been invited to make one piece of work for an environmental exhibition, Good Nature, celebrating the planet's beauty and fragility.
Pippa's work is based on J. G. Ballard's sci-fi novel, The Drowned World, set in a post-apocalyptic London that has been submerged underwater.
The underwater world is important to Pippa, who still shares her late husband's vision to make a positive difference to the world's oceans.
"Plastics in the ocean are my biggest concern, especially microbeads that are working their way into our systems. Through my relationship with Gordon I've become even more aware of it," she says.
"I really try not to use plastic bags."
She is proud of the work that the Sir Peter Blake Trust is carrying out in New Zealand, in both environmental and leadership realms.
"When the Trust started 13 years ago, I was in a real mush; I wasn't sure what it would do. I was still grieving for Peter, and I knew I didn't want a statue or an island named after him. The Trust is a living legacy to Peter – it's more than I ever hoped it would be," she says.
"I'm really proud of the awards, which acknowledge leadership, and our great alumni of leaders doing great things for the country. We're inspiring environmental awareness, and sending young future leaders on expeditions to the Subantarctic and the Kermadecs. All these things make New Zealand unique. People can really make things happen here."
When Pippa received an email that she was to be honoured with the Friend of New Zealand award, she was seriously taken aback.
"I was like, 'Why me? I'm an artist from a small town in England.' But then I understood that it's all about the legacy of Peter. I still feel incredible support from New Zealanders. It's the love from Kiwis everywhere that keeps me coming back."
Even when they are separated by many oceans, Pippa maintains close bonds with her children.
"I always know where they are in the world, and we FaceTime and WhatsApp a lot," she says.
Sarah-Jane, who celebrated her second birthday in the middle of the South Pacific on board her father's round-the-world racing yacht Lion New Zealand, is now 34.
Today, her Kiwi husband, Alistair Moore, is skipper of that same boat, berthed in Auckland, and of Steinlager 2, the yacht on which Sir Peter won the Whitbread round-the-world race. Alistair had worked for Peter since he was 17 and was on a research mission in the Amazon jungle when Peter died.
Pippa says the couple share an adventurous spirit, and she envisages they will "go off travelling the world together on an adventure. And for SJ that could be an artistic adventure," she says.
Sarah-Jane shares her mother's passion for art, and works as a freelance environmental artist in experimental theatre, set design and performance.
"She puts on her own small productions; she's very creative and full of great ideas," Pippa says.
"She's worked with Mixit, which has Saturday afternoon workshops for young people from refugee backgrounds in Auckland. I went to a performance in January and it inspired me to make paintings sometime in the future."
James, now 30, definitely has his father's sense of adventure and love of the sea.
"He has been filming in the Galapagos Islands, chasing crocodiles in Northern Australia, and sharks in Mexico and Maine," says Pippa.
He's about to cross the Atlantic, working as a cameraman on board a Volvo Ocean Race round-the-world boat.
He enjoys sailing, and delighted his mother when he recently took her 11ft scow dinghy out for a sail. But his true passion is kite surfing.
"He and a friend have designed a boat and attached a kite to the winch, and they plan to kite surf across the Atlantic," his mother smiles, with barely a
hint of apprehension in her voice.
"He's very adventurous and, like his dad, is very good in a team."
Although not quite as audacious, Pippa has plenty of her own adventures. She is an enthusiastic walker and enjoys taking four-hour hikes in the hills of England's South Downs. She also plans to see more of the world, and become further immersed in her artistic life.
"I want to investigate that more, do more, walk up more hills," she says.
"I want to keep going to the theatre and the movies, and visiting exhibitions and art galleries. I would like to read more; I love literature. I would like to have more time." And she repeats this final wish.
"I've led a pretty adventurous life, and I don't plan to slow down any time soon."
Words: Suzanne McFadden

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