Martin Sharp

Ultramarine Boofhead by martin sharp

Martin Sharp (b. 1942) is an Australian artist, underground cartoonist, songwriter and film-maker. His famous psychedelic posters of Bob Dylan, Donovan, and others, rank as classics of the genre, alongside the work of Rick Griffin, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, and Milton Glaser.

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 most famous songs, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses,’ created the cover art for Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’ and ‘Wheels of Fire’ albums, and in the 1970s, he became a champion of singer Tiny Tim, and of Sydney’s embattled Luna Park.

In late 1963 or early 1964 Martin 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 Martin was its art director and a major contributor. Sydney ‘Oz’ hit the streets on April Fool’s Day, 1963. Its irreverent attitude was in the tradition of the student newspapers, but it 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.’

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 centered on two items in the early issues of ‘Oz’ — one was Sharp’s ribald poem ‘The Word Flashed Around The Arms,’ which satirized the contemporary habit of youths gatecrashing parties; the other offending item was the famous 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’ realized that there was little future battling such strong opposition.

‘Swinging London’ was the 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. It was at this time that he was introduced to a musician in the famous London nightclub, The Speakeasy. During the evening Sharp told the musician about a poem he had recently written; the musician in turn told Martin 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 acclaimed 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 spectacular gatefold sleeve for Cream’s third album, the double LP set ‘Wheels of Fire’ (1968). He also designed the cover for the eponymous debut L.P. of London underground legends Mighty Baby.

Not long after his meeting with Clapton, Martin moved into The Pheasantry in Chelsea, an historic Georgian building. As the name suggests, the site was originally used to raise pheasants for the royal household. In the early 1900s, it was the home of Eleanor Thornton, a favored 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 renowned dance teacher Serafina Astafieva, who trained several of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancers. By the time Sharp moved in there, 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 the place 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 remarkable domicile with some remarkable people, including Eric Clapton (who moved in not long after Sharp did), Germaine Greer, filmmaker Philippe Mora, artist Tim Whidborne, prominent London ‘identity’ 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 Martin’s friend Robert Whitaker, photographer of choice for many leading rock groups on the scene, 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.’

Freed from the constraints of nine-to-five work thanks to a timely inheritance from an aunt, Sharp found himself at the center of London’s counter-cultural life and the Underground scene and quickly became one of its leading lights. When Richard Neville arrived in London, 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 ran 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, 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 color 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.’ He followed ‘Art Book’ with an ‘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, Martin 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).

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 artifacts 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 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 since that time he has 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-meter 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 labored 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 check 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 Martin’s work is the now-famous ‘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 Harbor Bridge was lit up with the word ‘Eternity,’ as a tribute to the legacy of Arthur Stace made popular by Martin Sharp.

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