21 January 1942|
Bellevue Hill, New South Wales, Australia
|Died||1 December 2013
Martin Ritchie Sharp (21 January 1942 – 1 December 2013) was an Australian artist, underground cartoonist, songwriter and film-maker.
Sharp made contributions to Australian and international culture from the early 1960s, and was called Australia's foremost pop artist. His psychedelic posters of Bob Dylan, Donovan and others, rank as classics of the genre, and his covers, cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of Oz magazine, both in Australia and in London. Martin co-wrote one of Cream's best known songs, "Tales of Brave Ulysses", created the cover art for Cream's Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire albums, and in the 1970s became a champion of singer Tiny Tim, and of Sydney's embattled Luna Park.
Sharp was born in Bellevue Hill, New South Wales in 1942, and educated at Cranbrook private school, where one of his teachers was the artist Justin O'Brien. In 1960, Sharp enrolled at the National Art School at East Sydney, where he contributed to the short-lived student magazine The Arty Wild Oat, along with fellow artists Garry Shead and John Firth Smith. He also submitted cartoons to The Bulletin. In 1961, he enrolled for two terms in architecture at Sydney University before returning to the NAS.
In late 1963 or early 1964 Sharp met Richard Neville, editor of the University of NSW student magazine Tharunka, and Richard Walsh, editor of its Sydney University counterpart Honi Soit. Both wanted to publish their own "magazine of dissent" and they asked Sharp and Shead to become contributors. The magazine was dubbed Oz. From 1963–65, Sharp was its art director and a major contributor.
Sydney Oz was published on April Fool's Day, 1963. Its irreverent attitude was in the tradition of the student newspapers, but its satirical and topical coverage of local and national issues and people developed a national profile, and made it a target for "the Establishment", and soon a prominent casualty of the so-called "Censorship Wars".
Sharp held his first one-man exhibition at the Clune Galleries in Sydney in 1965. "Art for Mart's Sake" almost sold out on the opening night. One of the paintings exhibited also featured in Shead's James Bond spoof Blunderball, made earlier that year.
During the life of Australian Oz Sharp, Neville and Walsh were twice charged with printing an obscene publication. The first trial was relatively minor, and should have been a non-event, but they were poorly advised and pleaded guilty, which resulted in their convictions being recorded. As a result, when they were charged with obscenity a second time, their previous convictions meant that the new charges were considerably more serious.
The charges centred on two items in the early issues of Oz—one was Sharp's ribald poem "The Word Flashed Around The Arms", which satirised the contemporary habit of youths gatecrashing parties; the other offending item was the well known photo (used on the cover of Oz #6) which depicted Neville and two friends pretending to urinate into a Tom Bass sculptural wall fountain, set into the wall of the new P&O office in Sydney, which had recently been opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
Sharp, Neville and Walsh were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. Their convictions caused a public outcry and they were subsequently acquitted on appeal, but the so-called "Oz Three" realised that there was little future battling such strong opposition.
In 1966 Sharp published a selection of cartoons in the book Martin Sharp Cartoons. "Swinging London" was a mecca for young artists, writers and musicians, and after the Oz trials, Sharp and Neville needed little encouragement to leave Australia. They set off on an overland trek through Asia, parting company in Kathmandu and making their separate ways to London.
On arrival, Sharp stayed for a short time with Neville's sister, writer Jill Neville in Knightsbridge. It was at this time that he was introduced to a musician in the London nightclub, The Speakeasy. During the evening, Sharp told the musician about a poem he had recently written; the musician in turn told Sharp that he was looking for a lyric for some new music he had just written. Sharp obligingly wrote out the poem and his address on a serviette and gave it to his new acquaintance.
The musician turned out to be guitarist Eric Clapton. The song that resulted from the meeting, "Tales of Brave Ulysses", was recorded as the B-side of Cream's smash hit "Strange Brew" and was included on Cream's second album Disraeli Gears. His friendship with Clapton led to the commission to design the famous 'dayglo' psychedelic collage cover for that album, which included painted photographs by Sharp's friend Robert Whitaker, whom Sharp knew from Australia and whose studio was in the same building where Sharp lived.
The following year Sharp designed the gatefold sleeve for Cream's third album, the double LP Wheels of Fire (1968), for which he won the New York Art Directors Prize for Best Album Design in 1969. He also designed the cover for the eponymous debut L.P. of London underground band Mighty Baby (1969).
Not long after his meeting with Clapton, Sharp moved into The Pheasantry at 152 Kings Road, Chelsea, a Georgian building. As the name suggests, the site was originally used to raise pheasants for the royal household. In the early 1900s (decade), it was the home of Eleanor Thornton, the favourite model of artist and sculptor Charles Sykes. Thornton is believed to have been the model for Sykes' most famous work, his Rolls Royce mascot the Spirit of Ecstasy.
In the 1920s and 1930s, it housed the studio of dance teacher Serafina Astafieva, who trained several of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes dancers and who taught prima ballerinas Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn. By the time Sharp moved in, The Pheasantry was a well-known 'artists' colony', its rooms rented out as apartments and residential studio space. The basement also housed a nightclub which operated into the 1970s. The Pheasantry nightclub was the venue for early UK gigs by Lou Reed, Queen and Hawkwind, among others, and was where singer Yvonne Elliman was discovered by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, leading to her role in the original soundtrack recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. The Pheasantry currently houses apartments, shops and a pizza restaurant, which has retained Madame Astafieva's mirrors and practice barre as a feature on the first floor.
Sharp shared this domicile with Eric Clapton (who moved in not long after Sharp did), Germaine Greer, filmmaker Philippe Mora, artist Timothy Whidborne, David Litvinoff (later an adviser on the production of Nicolas Roeg's Performance), writer Anthony Haden-Guest (author of The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco,and the Culture of the Night) and Sharp's friend Robert Whitaker, photographer of choice for many leading rock groups, including The Beatles. Whitaker was already famous/infamous for the controversial "butcher" photo used on the original cover of the Beatles' album Yesterday and Today.
Many years later, Sharp recalled the story of his 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 I 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, a Finish model called Eija Veka Aho, 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 studios...it was quite a special and creative building...it 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 notes...so 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."
Freed from the constraints of nine-to-five work thanks to a timely inheritance from an aunt, Sharp found himself at the centre of London's counter-cultural life and the Underground scene and quickly became one of its leading lights. When Richard Neville arrived in London in September, and he and Sharp joined forces with Felix Dennis and jointly established London Oz, which soon proved itself even more controversial than its Australian parent. Sharp became its Art Director and chief cartoonist.
This period in London and his work with Oz brought him international renown. As well as his Oz artwork and his famed album covers for Cream, he produced famous posters of musicians—Bob Dylan, Donovan and his classic 'exploding' Jimi Hendrix poster, based on a photo by Linda McCartney. These and other works like the poster for the "Legalise Pot" rally are keynote graphic works of the period and originals are now highly prized collector's items. He also designed at that time a controversial poster titled "Rasputin & his London Popes" for an antique shop in Barcelona run by a young Spanish photographer named Alexis de Vilar.
In 1969 Sharp held his second solo exhibition at the Sigi Krauss Gallery. Entitled "Sharp Martin and his Silver Scissors" it featured collages based on famous works of art. He returned to Australia later that year, taking up residency in the old Clune Galleries. Thelma Clune, the director, had decided to sell the building, but there was no rush for the sale, and under the watchful eye of mutual friend "Charlie" Brown, Sharp 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. The house became a unique multimedia space, an art environment in which each room was an entire art work. The Yellow House was open 24 hours a day and had thousands of visitors between 1971 and 1973 when it closed.
Returning to London in 1972, Sharp 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 Gauguin 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 Sharp's return to Australia and his "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 mid-Seventies, Sharp was probably best known in Australia for his work with the Nimrod Theatre, for whom he produced his famous series of posters, as well as designing numerous sets, costumes and scenery pieces. His famous Nimrod posters (now prized collectors' items) include his iconic poster for the plays Young Mo, The Venetian Twins, and Kold Komfort Kaffee. Sharp's rendering of the "Mo" face became the symbol of the Nimrod Theatre; and one of his best known images. In this period he also designed the classic cover for Jeannie Lewis' debut album Free Fall Through Featherless Flight (1974).
Sharp designed at least two posters for Australia's premier contemporary circus, Circus Oz including the iconic 'World Famous'/'Non-Stop Energy' design.
For the most of the 1970s and beyond, Sharp's work and life was dominated by two major interests—Sydney's Luna Park (located across the water from the Sharp's home in Bellevue Hill)—and Tiny Tim.
Sharp's involvement with the restoration of Luna Park in the 1970s proved a bittersweet experience. He was engaged as designer and artist to oversee the restoration of Luna Park, including a commission to renovate the enormous laughing face at the entrance; he also painted a large eye with a reflective pupil on the inside of the gate, but this was subsequently painted over. In 1978, he and fellow artist/designer Richard Liney (who had participated in the reconstruction of Luna Park, also an avid collector of memorabilia), loaned their combined collection of hundreds of fairground, circus, Luna Park and sideshow artefacts to the Art Gallery of NSW to coincide with the Festival of Sydney.
A year later, as pressure mounted to redevelop the prime habourside site, an arson attack in the Luna Park Ghost Train claimed seven lives including a father and his two sons. The Luna Park fire was a turning point in Sharp's life; like many others he firmly believes that the fire was a deliberate act of terrorism aimed at destroying the park and making the site available for redevelopment and in a 2010 interview on the ABC Radio National program The Spirit of Things, he revealed that the fire and the circumstances surrounding it had exerted a profound effect on his spiritual outlook.
Along with various other artist friends and sympathetic supporters, Sharp 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. Sharp's painting Snow Job was an expression of his feelings about this matter, and if it had not been for the efforts of Sharp and his friends and supporters, Sydney might have lost an important part of its character.
Sharp first saw performer Tiny Tim at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968 at the suggestion of Eric Clapton and from that time on he had been one of Sharp'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."
Sharp's appreciation of Tiny Tim manifested itself in many ways, including record production, costume design. He created a five-metre painting now hanging in Macquarie University, painted during the mid-1970s with Tim Lewis. His Tiny Tim Opera House concert poster is one of his most memorable and collectible images.
His cherished Tiny Tim film project Street of Dreams is commemorated in the painting Film Script. He laboured for over a decade on this film and it almost forced him to sell his house to finance it. However, the story goes that on the eve of the sale, Sharp received a surprise cheque in the mail—it was a substantial royalty payment for his lyrics for "Tales Of Brave Ulysses", which enabled him to continue working on the film without selling his house.
Another recurring element in Sharp's work is the "Eternity" signature. The origin of this image was the remarkable story of Sydney man Arthur Stace, also known as "Mr Eternity". Stace was an illiterate former soldier, petty criminal and alcoholic who became a devout convert to Christianity in 1930. For years after his conversion up until his death in 1967, Stace walked the streets of Sydney at night writing the single word "Eternity" on walls and footpaths in his unmistakable copperplate handwriting. For years Stace's identity remained unknown until it was finally revealed in a newspaper article in 1956. Sharp has perpetuated and celebrated Stace's work and message, and the 'Eternity' image has appeared in many of his works, including a poster celebrating Sydney's Haymarket area, and a large canvas that first appeared in the Oxford Street window of a Sydney store in 1990. During the millennium celebrations in 2000, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with the word "Eternity", as a tribute to the legacy of Arthur Stace made popular by Martin Sharp.
Sharp's work was celebrated in many exhibitions including a special Yellow House exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW and a major retrospective at the Museum of Sydney which ran from October 2009 to March 2010.
- "Martin Sharp - obituary". The Telegraph. 2 December 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2013.
- ABC Radio National - The Spirit of Things - Martin Sharp, 7 March 2010
- See: Hicks, Megan. "The Eternal City." Meanjin 2006 (Vol. 65 Issue 2), p139-146
- Morgan, Joyce (2 December 2013). "Icon of 1960s art scene Martin Sharp dies aged 71". The Australian (News Limited). Retrieved 2 December 2013.