Martin Sharp

As an artist, cartoonist, songwriter and film-maker, Martin Sharp has made tremendous contributions to Australian culture since the early 60s.

He is regarded as Australia's foremost Pop artist. The "acknowledged king of the UK poster scene in the 60's", his famous psychedelic posters of Dylan, Donovan and others rank as classics of the genre, alongside the work of Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, 'Hapshash & The Coloured Coat' and Milton Glaser. His cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of OZ magazine, both in Australia and in London. Martin co-wrote one of Cream's most famous songs, and in the 70s he became a champion of singer Tiny Tim, and of Sydney's embattled Luna Park.

Martin began his career at art school contributing to the magazine The Arty Wild Oat, along with fellow artists Garry Shead and John Firth Smith. Martin's work was noticed by Richard Neville, editor of the University of NSW student magazine Tharunka, and by Richard Walsh, editor its Sydney University counterpart Honi Soit. Both wanted to publish their own magazine and they asked Sharp and Shead to become contributors.

OZ hit the streets on April Fool's Day, 1963. Its irreverent attitude was very much in the tradition of the student newspapers, but its growing public profile quickly made it a target for "the Establishment", and Australian OZ became a prominent casualty of the so-called "Censorship Wars". OZ gained Martin a sufficient following to prompt his first one-man exhibition at the Clune Galleries in Sydney in 1965. "Art for Mart's Sake" was virtually sold out on the opening night, broadening the artist's horizon. (One of the paintings exhibited also featured in Shead's James Bond spoof BLUNDERBALL, made earlier that year.)

In 1964 Sharp, Neville and Walsh were charged with obscenity, tried and found guilty, although the conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal. Swinging London was by then the mecca for young artists, writers and musicians, and after the distasteful experience of the first OZ trial, Neville and Sharp needed little encouragement to leave Australia.

On arrival, Martin moved into a studio space shared with photographer Robert Whitaker (famous for his legendary "butcher" photo, used on the cover of the Beatles' album Yesterday & Today). When Richard Neville arrived a few months later, he established London OZ, which soon proved itself just as controversial as its Australian parent. Martin became its Art Director and chief cartoonist.

One night in 1967 Martin was introduced to a musician in a London nightclub. During the evening Martin wrote out a poem he had composed on a serviette and gave it to the musician to use as a lyric for a new song. The musician was guitarist Eric Clapton and the song, Tales of Brave Ulysses, was recorded on Cream's next album Disraeli Gears (1967). Martin's friendship with Clapton led to his designing the famous psychedelic collage cover of that album, which also included photography by Bob Whitaker. Martin also designed the spectacular gatefold sleeve for Cream's next album, the Wheels of Fire (1968), for which he won the New York Art Directors Prize for Best Album Design in 1969.

Not long after, Martin moved into a Chelsea studio space called The Pheasantry, which placed him at the epicentre of London's counter-cultural life and the Underground scene. Many years later, Martin recalled the story of his fateful meeting with Clapton:

"I visited the Speakeasy Club in London one evening (1967). I saw a girl I knew, Charlotte, who was sitting at a table with two young men who didn't know. Being alone I asked if I could join them and I was made welcome. I remember that there was a discussion about a controversial article which had appeared in The Idealist concerning the assassination of President Kennedy. I gathered that the young men were musicians and as I had just written a poem which I thought would make a good song, I mentioned this fact, and one of the musicians replied that he had just written some music. In grand show business tradition I wrote the lyrics on a paper serviette and gave them to him with my address. I was sharing a studio off the Kings Road Chelsea with the photographer, Bob Whitaker, at the time. I was pleasantly surprised when the musician, who turned out to be Eric Clapton, arrived at the studio with a 45 r.p.m. record with "Strange Brew" on the A-side and my song, "Tales of Brave Ulysses" on the B-side.

Soon after I moved to a nearby studio in "The Pheasantry", Kings Road, Chelsea, and needing someone to share with I asked my new friend if he would care to share the space and experience. Chelsea was an exciting place to live and Eric agreed. (David Litvinoff, a well-known and extraordinary character in the music and art world had found the studio.) It was a perfect place to work and live. Charlotte eventually moved in with Eric. Later we were joined by my girlfriend, Eija, and a young friend from Melbourne, painter and filmmaker, Philippe Mora, and his girlfriend, Freya. David Litvinoff worked in Tim Whidbornes' studio downstairs... Anthony Haden-Guest had a flat there...Germaine Greer was writing "The Female Eunuch" in a room there...there were photographic was quite a special and creative was called "The Pheasantry" because in the old days the land had been used for breeding pheasants for the King's table.

Eric asked me to design the cover for "Disraeli Gears". I loved record cover art and was very happy to do it. I commissioned my ex-studio mate, Bob Whitaker, to take some photos which were used in a collage on the back cover. I believe the photo used on the cover was a publicity shot that I got from Eric. I was using fluorescent paints at the time. It was the height of psychedelia.

Some of the ingredients in the cover are made up from Victorian decorative engravings. It was done in black and white first and then painted with fluorescent colors. I tried to capture the warm joyful liveliness of Cream's songs. I later went on to design the cover for "Wheels Of Fire" for Cream and also for Ginger Baker's "Airforce", a band called Mighty Baby...Jeannie Lewis' "Free Fall Through Featherless Flight" and a few of my own releases of Tiny Tim, "Chameleon", "Keeping My Troubles To Myself", and "The World Non-Stop Singing Record."

In the basement of The Pheasantry was a club of the same name and often one's sleep was disturbed by the R&B bass I was reacting by listening to a lot of old songs that had been re-released. Al Jolson, Al Bowly...the dance bands of the war years and earlier. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and "Hutch" (Leslie Hutchinson). Eric had seen Tiny Tim perform at The Scene in New York City and knowing I loved the old songs he urged me to go and see Tiny in his first London performance at the Royal Albert Hall. I'd never heard Tiny before and I was completely amazed by his extraordinary, joyful persona and his absolute mastery over the whole language of popular song. I felt I would love to work with him, but thought he was destined to the heights of stardom. I never felt the opportunity would arise. Over twenty years later I write this on letterhead from the film, "Street of Dreams" I have been making with Tiny over the last 12 years, thinking of the hundreds of songs and conversations I have recorded with him over the years. Thus was my entry into the world of popular song.

The meeting of musician and artist directly without intermediaries is, and always has and will be, a fruitful one. Such was the goodwill that existed in London during the late '60's that a painter from Australia could meet a great musician from England and informally give him some lyrics which would become a song, a friendship, a career with Tiny Tim, and a record cover "

Martin became a renowned Pop artist and created famous posters of musicians like Bob Dylan, Donovan and Jimi Hendrix (adapted from a photo by Linda McCartney). He also discovered Tiny Tim, who became one of his main artistic obsessions.

In 1969 Martin returned to Australia, setting up residency in the old Clune Galleries. Thelma Clune, the Director, had decided to sell the building. There was no rush for the sale however, and under the watchful eye of mutual friend "Charlie'' Brown, Martin presented his first exhibition after his return. This was followed by ''The Incredible Shrinking Exhibition", which comprised photographs of the first show re-exhibited in small gem-like mirror frames. These two exhibitions laid the foundations for the famous ''Yellow House" project of 1970-71.

Returning to London in 1972, Martin continued his interest with the idea of appropriation. He created "Art Book", another miniature production, approximately 5" x 6" in size and incorporating 36 colour collages cut from the pages of glossy art books, bringing together the work in single images of Magritte and Van Gogh, Matisse and Magritte, Botticelli and Picasso with occasional overlays of Van Gogh on Van Gogh, Van Gogh on Botticelli, or Vermeer on Vermeer.

"I have never been shy about cutting things up if I had a good idea. To me it was worth the price of a book for the idea it expressed, the interconnecting of different worlds. I could put a Gaugin figure in a Van Gogh landscape, make the composition work, and also say something about their relationship."

Distributed in the United Kingdom, France and Italy in 1972, "Artbook" was released in Australian in 1973 to coincide with Martin's 1973 "Art Exhibition" at the Bonython Gallery, Sydney. The previous collage images were presented as completed paintings, returning them to their original medium. Extending viewer involvement, one work, "Self Portrait' was simply a mirror in an ornate gold frame while another more iconicised work was a linen, cheap reproduction of the "Mona Lisa" in an equally ornate gold frame, entitled 'Tea Towel''.

During the seventies, Martin hooked up with the Nimrod Theatre and produced his famous series of Nimrod posters. These important works, now prized collectors' items, included his classic poster for the play "Young Mo". The Australian comic "Mo" became the symbol of the Nimrod Theatre and one of Martin's best known images. In this period he also designed the classic cover for Jeannie Lewis' debut album Free Fall Through Featherless Flight (1974).

For the rest of the 70s and beyond, Martin's work was dominated by two major obsessions -- Sydney's Luna Park (located close to the Sharp family home in Lavender Bay) and Tiny Tim. Martin was engaged as a designer and artist to oversee the restoration of Luna Park, including the commission to revamp the enormous laughing face at the entrance. This long commission had all the ingredients of Pop art -- nostalgia, huge sculptures, powerful images, wonderful paintings by Arthur Barton along with bright colours and lights. In 1978 he and fellow artist/designer Richard Liney, also an avid collector of memorabilia, loaned their combined collection of hundreds of fairground. circus, Luna Park and sideshow artifacts to the Art Gallery of NSW to coincide with the Festival of Sydney.

In 1979 the tragic fire in the Luna Park Ghost Train claimed seven lives, and silenced the optimism for a newly restored Fun Park. Martin's work on the Luna Park Face was ruined, and the park's theme "Just for Fun" lost its meaning. Like many others, Martin firmly believes the fire was an act of terrorism aimed at destroying the park and establishing alternative interests. Its unique location on the northern foreshore of the harbour, just under the north-western tower of the Harbour Bridge, makes it a prize of inestimable value to property developers. Along with various other artist friends and sympathetic supporters, Martin was instrumental in forming the Friends of Luna Park in an endeavour to lobby the State Government and remind Sydneysiders of what they stood to lose if the park was lost. Martin's painting "Snow Job" is a poignant reminder of his feelings about this matter, and if it had not been for the efforts of Martin Sharp, Sydney may have lost an important part of its character.

Besides Van Gogh, Tiny Tim has been one of Martin's strongest inspirations.

"Tim's appropriation of song is very much like my appropriation of images. We are both collagists taking the elements of different epochs and mixing them to discover new relationships."

Martin's appreciation of Tiny Tim has manifested itself in many ways -- a five-metre painting now hanging in Macquarie University was painted during the mid seventies with Tim Lewis. A film "Street of Dreams" is described in Martin's painting "Film Script". Martin laboured for over a decade on this film about Tiny Tim, and it almost led to him selling his house to finance it. However, the story goes that on the eve of the sale, Martin received a surprise cheque in the mail -- it was a substantial royalty payment for his lyrics for Tales Of Brave Ulysses! This enabled him to continue working on the film without selling his house.

[Adapted from an article by Greg Weight for Australian Artist magazine]

 References / Links

Peter Mudie, 1997, UBU: Sydney Underground Movies 1966-70 (UNSW Press)

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