MARTIN SHARP: Satirical Art, Psychedelic Heart

Martin Sharp in the exhibition space at the Martin Sharp Launch - photo by Sydney Living Museums

Martin Ritchie Sharp was the only child of an only child of an only child on his mother’s side. Joan (Jo) Ritchie was the wealthy daughter of industrialist Stuart Ritchie, while Martin’s father Henry Sharp was a doctor from a larger family, having four siblings.

Martin Sharp, Spaceman, 1968 – photo by MILESAGO

Henry and Jo met on board ship in 1937 when Henry was earning his passage from Australia to England as the ship’s doctor. Jo had recently turned 21 and was travelling to England with her family. Their romance blossomed on board, but Henry had signed up for a three-year assignment at Lewisham Hospital in London. On completion of this, he returned to Sydney, Jo having already returned. The couple married on the 7th December 1940 and set up home in Bellevue Hill in a house called Wirian, that Henry had inherited from his grandparents when he was in his twenties. Martin was born on the 21st of January 1942.

Martin did not have a close relationship with either of his parents. When the war was in full swing, Henry was hardly home. Jo had stated at one point in her pregnancy that she did not want a child, and never had strong maternal feelings for her son. He grew up close to his nurse, Roma Leonard.

Despite this, Jo encouraged Martin’s early leanings towards art. His first drawing was at age two when he scribbled on a letter Jo had written to Henry. Jo would make collages from pictures cut from fashion magazines and she encouraged Martin to do the same. One of these early works included a Campbell’s soup can, long before Andy Warhol made the image memorable. These activities would lay the foundations for Martin’s art career.

Man Walking on the Moon by Martin Sharp – photo by Artnet

His grandfather Stuart Richie loved cartoons and Martin’s grandmother would cut cartoon strips from newspapers to collate into booklets; Martin learned to read from these. The house was always filled with books – Martin’s favourite was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He also loved the drawings of E.H. Shepard, who illustrated Winnie-the-Pooh.

Martin attended his first art exhibition at age nine in 1951, when his mother took him to the inaugural Blake Prize presentation, awarded for ‘subject matter of religious or spiritual integrity’. It had been won by Martin’s future art teacher, Justin O’ Brien, for his triptych Virgin Enthroned.

Martin’s art was also encouraged by Jeffrey Smart, who played Phidias on the Australian children’s radio programme The Argonauts Club, where he requested the young listeners to submit their drawings. Martin’s best friend was John Gregory-Roberts, who lived next door. His father was an ophthalmologist and Martin was fascinated by the charts he used to test for colour-blindness. Martin would also spend hours studying his own father’s microscope slides, Henry having by this time settled into general practice close to home. Jo had bought her husband a large print of van Gogh’s The Artist on the Road to Tarascon, (1888) which enthralled the child.

“The Arty Wild Oat #2” by Garry Shead and Martin Sharp – photo by Research Online | University of Wollongong

Martin attended the private boys-only Cranbrook School in Sydney, spending his holidays at his maternal grandparents’ house Telford on the Port Hacking River. His art teacher was renowned Australian artist Justin O’Brien, who recognised Martin’s talent and recommended that he study at the National Art School in East Sydney. Martin enrolled at the school in 1960, where he and fellow art students Garry Shead and John Firth Smith produced the only two issues of the student satirical broadsheet The Arty Wild Oat. He re-joined the school after a brief foray of two terms at Sydney University in 1961 where he studied architecture.

The Bulletin, an Australian magazine published between January 1880 and January 2008, began with a focus on politics and business. It devolved into a news publication in the 1960s, to which Martin regularly submitted cartoons.

Sharp’s first solo exhibition “Art for Mart’s Sake” was held in 1965 at the Clune Galleries in Sydney and was hugely successful, being almost a sell-out on the first night. One of the works was featured in the James Bond parody movie Blunderball, or from Dr. Nofinger with Hate (1966).

That same year Sharp published his book Martin Sharp Cartoons, comprising mostly reproductions of his work published elsewhere.

Martin Sharp cartoons: a selection from Oz, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Honi Soit, Tharunka, etc Scripts Pty. – photo by Art Gallery NSW | NSW Government

Through The Arty Wild Oat, Martin met Richard Walsh, the then editor of the University of Sydney’s newspaper Honi Soit (an abbreviation of the French ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (Shame upon him who thinks evil of it) and Richard Neville, the editor of the University of New South Wales publication Tharunka (which means ‘message stick in Aborigine’.) The two editors asked Sharp and Shead to contribute to a new magazine to be called Oz, and which was first published on the 1st April 1963. It was a satirical view of The Establishment and Sharp was its art director and a major contributor until 1966, when he left to go to London.

The first issue immediately courted controversy, with Sharp, Neville & Walsh being charged with ‘printing an obscene publication’, for including a reference to illegal abortions on its cover. Apparently, on poor legal advice, they pleaded guilty, which resulted in their convictions being placed on record. When they were charged a second time for the same offense in 1964, for issue #6, which included a bawdy poem called The World Flashed Around the Arms and for depicting a photograph on the cover of the three men pretending to urinate into a newly installed wall fountain, created by Tom Bass. Because of their previous conviction, this charge held more weight and the three men were convicted and imprisoned, but the public protest was instrumental in them being acquitted on appeal two years later. Luminaries including John Lennon and Mick Jagger supported the magazine’s cause.

The first issue of Oz magazine, with Martin Sharp’s illustration – photo by Richard Neville, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London | The Guardian

Martin and Richard Neville had no reason to remain in Australia after this run-in with the law and they left for London in 1966. They began the trip together, making their way through Asia, but split up in Kathmandu. They reunited in London, where Martin shared accommodation with Neville’s sister.

Sharp and Neville launched Oz London in 1967 and it epitomised the hippie movement of sex, drugs and rock ’n ’roll. Forty-eight issues were published before its closure in November 1973.

Martin moved to a studio in Chelsea and was at The Speakeasy nightclub when he was introduced to a musician who was looking for someone to write lyrics. Sharp told him he had recently written a poem, which he proceeded to reproduce on a paper napkin to give to his new acquaintance – Eric Clapton. The song was recorded by Clapton’s group Cream, as Tales of Brave Ulysses, the B-side to their hit Strange Brew.

Their friendship and collaboration grew, and Sharp was commissioned to design the psychedelic collage cover for Cream’s second album Disraeli Gears. Sharp is quoted as saying that he ‘tried to capture the warm joyful liveliness of Cream’s songs.’ A year later Sharp designed the 4-sided gatefold cover for Cream’s third album, the double LP Wheels of Fire. This earned Martin the New York Directors Prize for Best Album Design in 1969. He also designed the cover for the first of two albums for the short-lived group Mighty Baby (1968-1971).

Cream, 1968 Wheels of Fire, designed by Martin Sharp – photo by Trendsmap

Soon after his meeting with Clapton, Sharp moved into The Pheasantry, in Kings Road, Chelsea. It derived its name from its previous incarnation as a breeding site for King George III’s pheasants and was probably constructed between 1766-1769. In Sharp’s time, it was a well-known artists’ colony of rented rooms and studio space. Germaine Greer lived there, where she wrote The Female Eunuch. There was a nightclub in the basement where American musician Lou Reed played, as did Queen and UK space rock band Hawkwind. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice discovered the American singer/actress Yvonne Elliman there, who went on to play in the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar for four years.

Sharp also formed a long and productive friendship and working relationship with Herbert Buckingham Khaury, stage name Tiny Tim.

Sharp also produced posters for musicians including Bob Dylan and Donovan. His iconic poster Exploding Jimi Hendrix was based on a photograph taken by Linda Eastman (who married Paul McCartney) in New York in 1968. Martin traced the image and spattered it with psychedelic colour.

Japan, 2000 by Martin Sharp – photo by Australian Art Auction Records

One of his later works, Man Walking on the Moon (C1972) sold for A$37 000 in June 2014 and Japan (2000) sold for A$24 000 in August 2018.

1969 saw Sharp holding his second solo exhibition ‘Sharp Martin and his Silver Scissors’ at the Sigi Krauss Gallery. It comprised Sharp’s collages based on famous artworks – he explained: “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.”

On his return to Australia later in 1969, he held ‘The Incredible Shrinking Exhibition’ which showcased photographs exhibited in mirror frames. This led to the Yellow House project being set up in 1971; similar in concept to The Pheasantry, it was a converted gallery painted yellow with each room being a surrealist vision, and which operated as an artist’s commune. It was open twenty-four hours a day before closing in 1973.

Artwork by Martin Sharp, Kold Komfort Kaffee – Nimrod, Made of screenprint – photo by MutualArt

In 1972, Sharp once again returned to London where he held another exhibition called ‘Art Book’. This featured a miniature book, about 12 x15cm in size, comprising 36 colour collages snipped from glossy art books. The images included works of Magritte, Van Gogh, Matisse, Boticelli, Picasso and Vermeer, overlaid on each other. The book was released in Europe that year and in Australia a year later when Sharp returned to exhibit at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney.

During the mid-seventies, Sharp worked from his home Wirian, designing sets and costumes as well as his iconic poster series for the Nimrod Theatre. His silkscreen Kold Komfort Kaffee – Nimrod (edition 483/1000) sold for A$475 in January 2015 and a set of 7 Nimrod posters screenprint 920/1000, sold for A$3 050 in August 2015.

Other commissions included work for the Paris Theatre, Circus Oz and the Sydney and Adelaide festivals. One of his most memorable works is the ‘Eternity’ signature. One Arthur Stace, a reformed teenage alcoholic and medically discharged soldier of the Australian Imperial Force in WWI, was converted to Christianity in August 1930 after hearing a sermon which inspired his idea of eternity. He would wander the streets of Sydney at night, chalking the word ‘Eternity’ on walls and pavements, in copperplate handwriting, despite being illiterate. He is thought to have inscribed the word around half a million times in 35 years. The only surviving original inscription was found inside the bell of the Sydney Clock Tower, which was rebuilt in the 1960s after being dismantled during WWII.

Eternity Haymarket by Martin Sharp – photo by National Gallery of Australia

Sharp recreated Stace’s legacy, his oil on paper on board Eternity Haymarket (1976-77) selling for A$25 000 in December 2010. His 1990 screen print of the word is held by the National Gallery of Australia.

In 1973, Sharp was commissioned to rejuvenate the artwork at the amusement park Luna Park in St Kilda, Melbourne. For two years, he and a team of fellow artists laboured to repaint the clown face at the entrance and numerous rides. In June 1979, disaster struck when a fire broke out in the ghost train, causing the deaths of six children and an adult. Sharp was instrumental in campaigning for those responsible for the tragedy to be called to account; there were rumours that the fire was caused by arson. In 1980, Sharp co-ordinated the ‘Friends of Luna Park’ protest against planned development of the site, culminating in The National Trust of Australia protecting it.

For the next two decades, Martin created work for numerous Australian and international artists. Australian musician Jeannie Lewis had sung at the opening of Sharp’s exhibition in April 1973 and he created the cover art for her album Free Fall Through Featherless Flight, released in October that year.

Free Fall Through Featherless Flight cover art by Martin Sharp – photo by Rate Your Music

In 1998, Sharp was included in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s international poster exhibition, The Power of the Poster, the only Australian to be invited to exhibit.

Sharp was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) in 2005, for ‘service to the arts as a painter and graphic designer, particularly contributing to the POP art movement in Australia and providing support to emerging young artists’.

In 2012, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Visual Arts by the University of Sydney and the National Art School awarded him a Fellowship in 2013.

Martin Sharp died of emphysema at his home Wirian on the 1st December 2013, aged 71. Having never married or had children, his will specified that Wirian become ‘a hub for art education and that IT should foster awareness of his work’.